Islanders have cap space to chase 2023 NHL free agents

Here is something that could not be said until now about the Islanders under Lou Lamoriello: They will go into the summer with relative freedom to operate under the salary cap.

After four years of maneuvering to stay under the cap, being forced into ill-fated deals (hello, Devon Toews) and being so hamstrung during free agency last summer that they essentially sat out the whole affair, there is finally a payoff.

The Islanders’ flexibility going into the trade deadline has been noted in this space repeatedly, and it increased on Wednesday when Nikita Soshnikov was sent to the AHL (more on that below). This is about their flexibility going into next summer.

There was a temptation to write this week about the impending free agency of Scott Mayfield, who is in the midst of a proverbial contract year, proving he is worth more than $1.45 million and a spot on the third pair. But if Mayfield — a career Islander who bought a home on The Island a few years ago — wants to stay and if the Islanders want to keep him, there is not much question that a deal can be done under the salary cap.

Tyler Motte #14 of the Ottawa Senators and Scott Mayfield #24 of the New York Islanders track the puck during the first period at Canadian Tire Centre on November 14, 2022 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Scott Mayfield is playing well enough to garner a significant raise in free agency, and the Islanders will have the salary-cap space to give him one.
NHLI via Getty Images

Of course, there are no promises at this stage, only signs (which are, for what they’re worth, positive), much as there are for restricted free agent Oliver Wahlstrom. In the grand scheme, though, the Islanders are finally in a position of strength regarding the cap.

That is not just because the Isles currently have a hair over $4.5 million in space after waiving Soshnikov. Semyon Varlamov’s $5 million will also come off the books following this season, and though it’s possible the Isles could try to re-sign him, the reality is Ilya Sorokin deservedly has taken two-thirds of the starts and played at a level that will earn him Vezina Trophy consideration should it continue. Whether it is Varlamov or not, the Islanders will not be paying their backup goaltender $5 million next season.

Adding to the sunny outlook is the optimism projected by commissioner Gary Bettman about the salary cap jumping by more than $4 million next season, putting an early end to the flat-cap era. That is not guaranteed, and Bettman said in October it “is going to be close” as to whether the players pay off approximately $1 billion in debt to owners due to pandemic-related revenue losses, allowing for the cap to jump. But even if it doesn’t, the scheduled $1 million increase to $83.5 million is not nothing.

There are still a lot of unknowns between now and July 1, and what is or is not done at the trade deadline will have a major impact on this discussion. But as things stand right now, the Islanders will have the money next offseason to do what they could not this time around: compete for any top-end free agent they want.

Johnny be booed

Ilya Sorokin #30 of the New York Islanders defends the net against Johnny Gaudreau #13 of the Columbus Blue Jackets at UBS Arena on November 12, 2022 in Elmont, New York.
Johnny Gaudreau was perplexed by the less-than-pleasant reception he received from Islanders fans, many of whom likely hoped he would have signed with the club over the summer.
NHLI via Getty Images

When the Blue Jackets visited UBS Arena last weekend and Islanders fans booed Johnny Gaudreau each time he touched the puck, it felt at least a little bit misguided. Much as the Islanders might have liked to get Gaudreau, they would have needed to offload salary to make a competitive offer for the superstar winger, who eventually signed a seven-year, $68.25 million deal ($9.75 million AAV) with Columbus.

“I was talking to my coach after the third shift, and I was like, ‘I don’t get it,’” Gaudreau told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan of the fan reaction. “I didn’t talk to [the Islanders] once throughout the whole free agency.”

Setting aside the artful phrasing from Gaudreau, who made no mention of conversations others had on his behalf, the Islanders, as noted above, were hamstrung last summer in their ability to make an offer. Had Gaudreau desired to go to Long Island, Lamoriello could have figured it out. But not without dealing from a position of weakness and likely parting with a lot of assets as a result.

There is no Gaudreau equivalent hitting unrestricted free agency after this season — the highest-profile players who would be ripe for long-term deals are David Pastrnak, Bo Horvat and Dylan Larkin, and it seems possible they stay put with the Bruins, Canucks and Red Wings, respectively. This is not to link the Islanders with any of the three, or for that matter with any specific player.

It is to say that as they enter next offseason looking to upgrade their roster, they will do so from a position in which that is distinctly possible, instead of one where every superstar is a pipe dream.

Regarding Soshnikov

Jacob Trouba #8 of the New York Rangers and Nikita Soshnikov #41 of the New York Islanders battle for position during the first period at Madison Square Garden on November 08, 2022 in New York City.
The Islanders’ decision to send Nikita Soshnikov to the AHL will carve another $750,000 under the salary cap.
Getty Images

The interesting thing about the team’s decision to send Soshnikov down is the Islanders were in no particular need of the additional cap space they’ll get with him in Bridgeport. Not that it hurts to get an additional $750,000 off the books — per CapFriendly’s projection, the Isles will have approximately $16.1 million in space at the March 3 trade deadline as things stand today. But they already had enough space to make a run at whomever Lamoriello fancies.

Furthermore, no corresponding move was announced, though center Ruslan Iskhahov has opened some eyes at AHL Bridgeport with 14 points in 12 games. That adds another promising call-up candidate to a list that already includes Aatu Räty, William Dufour and Simon Holmstrom up front and Samuel Bolduc at the blue line.

For now, though, this doesn’t look like a way to clear a space for one of them. It seems Lane Lambert saw enough from Ross Johnston in Ottawa on Monday to carry him as the only extra skater for the rest of the trip. Soshnikov at least will get some playing time in Bridgeport as opposed to sitting in press boxes for the next few games.

Playing catch-up with the numbers

New York Islanders' Brock Nelson (29) celebrates after his empty-net goal with teammates Cal Clutterbuck (15) and Casey Cizikas (53) during third-period NHL hockey game action against the Ottawa Senators in Ottawa, Ontario, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.
As the Islanders have played their way into early playoff contention, not every statistical model is bullish on their postseason chances…yet.
AP

When will we know the Islanders are “for real”?

If your answer is that we already do, you’ll hear no arguments from this reporter. But sustaining their play over the next few weeks could cause the public analytics models — which currently have a wide variance on the Islanders — to reflect that verdict in their playoff odds.

Last season, the Islanders’ 11-game losing streak through late November caused their playoff odds to crater and never recover, even though they had moments where coming back in the standings seemed doable. Right now, depending on your preferred model, their odds are as high as 75 percent (FiveThirtyEight) or as low as 24.9 percent (MoneyPuck). There is only so long you can play at this level, though, before the numbers catch up, and it’s likely the Islanders are hitting that point.

This season’s Eastern Conference playoff field will not be as straightforward it was last season, when we essentially knew by Christmas who would be in. If the Islanders keep this pace, though, their own fate might be obvious by then.


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