Lou Lamoriello has worked through some difficult decisions in order to free up some much-needed cap space this offseason. Now the Islanders’ general manager is challenged with distributing it effectively.
With the free-agent market set to open on Wednesday and approximately $17.6 million to spare, Lamoriello has to not only replace top-line winger Jordan Eberle (taken in the expansion draft) and second-pair defenseman Nick Leddy (traded to Detroit), but also re-sign key restricted free agents Adam Pelech, Anthony Beauvillier and goalie Ilya Sorokin — all three of whom received qualifying offers Monday and are arbitration-eligible.
Kieffer Bellows, Anatoli Golyshev and Otto Koivula were also qualified, per multiple reports. Michael Dal Colle, the Isles’ fifth-overall pick in 2014, was not extended a qualifying offer.
Pelech is the Islanders’ No. 1 defenseman and is likely a top priority for Lamoriello. Given the Islanders’ current financial situation, however, Pelech may not be able to get the average annual value he’s looking for as Lamoriello works to keep the team’s core together.
Sorokin and Beauvillier are certainly part of that core as well, but it’s clear Pelech will be the trickiest to fit under the cap, considering he is one year away from UFA status and due for a major bump from his previous $1.6 million cap hit. Pelech will likely be shooting for a seven-year deal at around a $7 million per year average, but the Isles may not be able to afford that, which means a term compromise could be necessary.
Lamoriello didn’t dismiss the possibility of making another move to free up more cap space, but the top priorities of the reigning two-time GM of the Year clearly remain in house.
“Wherever we can get better, we will,” he said this past weekend. “Right now, we’re trying to get ourselves focused on the people that we have and at the same time trying to [sign our restricted free agents]. Also, some of our younger players have to be given those opportunities to come forward and take some of those spots.
“We have to look at the big picture as far as where the contracts are, and where they’re coming up in the cap world that we live — and a flat cap as you all know.”
Still, the voids in the lineup created by the departures of Leddy and Eberle need to be addressed. And finding a top-four defenseman to take on Leddy’s minutes is looking like the more daunting challenge of the two. Alec Martinez was a potential option, but the Golden Knights are reportedly closing in on an extension to keep the defenseman off the market. Ryan Suter, who played for coach Barry Trotz in Nashville, may have fit in nicely, but the Islanders don’t appear to be front-runners for the 36-year-old.
Up front, the Islanders have a few options to compensate for the loss of Eberle’s production. Like Suter, Zach Parise was bought out of the final four seasons of his deal with the Wild and has been linked to the Isles. Parise, a former Devil under Lamoriello, could sign a team-friendly, one-year deal to join a legitimate playoff contender with an eye on winning his first Stanley Cup.
The Avalanche probably can’t afford to keep pending UFA Gabriel Landeskog after Cale Makar’s six-year, $54 million deal and the blank check Nathan MacKinnon is expected to receive after the 2022-23 season. His style of play fits in well with the Islanders, but Landeskog may be too expensive. Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko would be a much cheaper alternative. Plus, St. Louis is now occupied with signing restricted free agent Pavel Buchnevich, whom it just acquired from the Rangers.
Kyle Palmieri, however, may just be the most logical option. After playing a major role in the Isles’ second straight run to the Stanley Cup semifinal, Palmieri can slot in on the right side and the power play. Even though Palmieri can command much more on the market, the 30-year-old may be willing to accept less to stay.
Lamoriello also has to make a decision regarding pending UFA Casey Cizikas. But after Lamoriello protected Cizikas’ linemates, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, in the expansion draft, it seems like keeping the fourth “Identity Line” intact is a priority.