The islanders have enough space to hunt down the 2023 NHL free agents

What hasn’t been said yet about the Islanders under Lou Lamoriello: They’ll head into the summer with relative freedom to operate below 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 paralyzed during last summer’s free agency that they essentially suspended the whole affair, there’s finally a payoff .

The flexibility of the islanders in the trade deadline was ascertained repeated in this room, and it rose on Wednesday when Nikita Soshnikov was sent to the AHL (more on that below). This is about their flexibility for next summer.

It was tempting to write this week about the upcoming free agency of Scott Mayfield, who is in the middle of a proverbial contract year. proving he’s worth more than $1.45 million and has 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’s no question a deal can be struck below the salary cap.

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

Of course, there are no promises at this point, just signs (which are positive for what they’re worth), much like restricted free agent Oliver Wahlstrom. By and large, however, the islanders are finally in a position of strength when it comes to the cap.

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

Adding to the sunny outlook is Commissioner Gary Bettman’s projected optimism that next season’s salary cap would rise by more than $4 million, ending the flat-cap era early. That’s not guaranteed, and Bettman said in October it will be “close” if players will repay about $1 billion in debt to owners due to pandemic-related revenue losses, allowing the cap to jump. But even if it doesn’t, the proposed $1 million increase to $83.5 million isn’t nothing.

There are still many unknowns leading up to July 1st and what is done or not done at the close will have a major impact on this discussion. But as things stand, next offseason the Islanders will have the cash to do what they couldn’t do this time: compete for every top-end free agent they want.

Johnny gets booed

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

When the Blue Jackets visited the UBS Arena last weekend and Islanders fans booed Johnny Gaudreau every time he touched the puck, it felt at least a little misguided. As much as the Islanders would have liked to have Gaudreau, they would have had to give up the salary to make a competitive offer for the superstar winger, who eventually signed a seven-year, $68.25 million ($9.75 million AAV) deal. 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 fans’ reaction. “I haven’t spoken to him [the Islanders] once in the whole free agency.”

Aside from the elaborate phrasing of Gaudreau, who failed to mention conversations others were having on his behalf, as noted above, the islanders were paralyzed in their ability to make an offer last summer. If Gaudreau had wanted to go to Long Island, Lamoriello could have figured it out. But not without acting from a position of weakness and likely divesting of many assets.

There’s no Gaudreau equivalent hitting unrestricted free agency after this season – the most prominent players ripe for long-term deals are David Pastrnak, Bo Horvat and Dylan Larkin, and it seems possible that they could be with the Bruins, Canucks and remain Red Wings respectively. This is not intended to associate the islanders with any of the three or with any particular player.

It’s fair to say that as they head into the next off-season to improve their roster, they will do so from a position where it’s clearly possible, rather than a position where every superstar is a pipe dream.

Speaking of Soshnikov

New York Rangers' Jacob Trouba #8 and New York Islanders' Nikita Soshnikov #41 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

What’s interesting about the team’s decision to send Soshnikov down is that the Islanders didn’t particularly need the extra Cap spot they get with him in Bridgeport. Not that getting an extra $750,000 off the books hurts — per projection by CapFriendly, the islands will have approximately $16.1 million in space as of March 3 close. But they already had enough space to pounce on anyone Lamoriello felt like chasing.

Furthermore, no such move has been announced, although center Ruslan Iskhahov has opened some eyes at AHL Bridgeport with 14 points in 12 games. It adds another promising draft contender to a list that already includes Aatu Räty, William Dufour and Simon Holmstrom at the front and Samuel Bolduc on the blue line.

At the moment, however, this doesn’t look like a possibility to free up a spot for either of them. It seems Lane Lambert saw enough of Ross Johnston on Monday in Ottawa to carry him as the only additional skater for the remainder of the trip. At least Soshnikov will get some playing time in Bridgeport instead of sitting in the press box for the next few games.

Catching up with the numbers

The New York Islanders' Brock Nelson (29) celebrates after scoring from an empty net with teammates Cal Clutterbuck (15) and Casey Cizikas (53) during third-period NHL hockey game action against the Ottawa Senators in Ottawa, Ontario Monday , 11.14., 2022.
With the Islanders playing their way into early playoff contention, not every statistical model is optimistic about their postseason chances…yet.

When will we know the islanders are “real”?

If you reply that we already are, you will not hear any arguments from this reporter. But maintaining their game over the next few weeks could see the public analytical models – which currently show a wide divergence from the Islanders – reflecting that judgment in their playoff odds.

Last season, the Islanders’ 11-game losing streak through late November meant their playoff chances plummeted and never recovered, though they had moments when a return to the standings seemed feasible. Right now, their chances are up to 75 percent, depending on your preferred model (Thirty-five) or only 24.9 percent (MoneyPuck). However, there is only a limited amount of time you can play at this level before the numbers catch up, and the islanders are likely to reach that point.

The Eastern Conference playoff field this season won’t be as easy as it was last season, when by Christmas we essentially knew who would be in it. However, if the islanders keep up this pace, their own fate by then could be obvious.

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