We’ve seen what the Isles have heading into this pivotal offseason. How about what they don’t have? Who is out there that can push the Islanders into the NHL Eastern Conference elite, either via free agency or trade?
It’s not even June, so the names listed below are simply culled from the group of pending unrestricted and restricted free agents. Everyone still is property of their current team until noon on July 1, though other teams can start contacting pending UFAs on June 25, the day after the NHL Draft, and pending RFAs on June 28.
Restricted free agents require either a trade or that most rare of NHL transactions, the offer sheet. Here is the compensation chart from the league regarding RFAs this year:
Average annual value / Compensation
Less than $1,239,226 / Nothing
Over $1,239,226 to $1,877,615 / Third-round pick
Over $1,877,615 to $3,755,233 / Second-round pick
Over $3,755,233 to $5,632,847 / First- and third-round picks
Over $5,632,847 to $7,510,464 / First-, second- and third-round picks
Over $7,510,464 to $9,388,080 / Two firsts, a second- and third-round picks
Over $9,388,080 / Four first-round picks
Certainly the Isles could afford something on the smaller end, but then again, so could the team they’re trying to poach from. Most general managers aren’t interested in creating such ill will, so it’s doubtful anything but a trade would happen with an RFA that a team wanted to or needed to unload for cap reasons.
Garth Snow’s track record on surprising trades, particularly at the draft (Lubo Visnovsky for a pick in 2012, Nino Niederreiter for Cal Clutterbuck in 2013, Griffin Reinhart for a first and a second last June), is pretty strong. His free-agent track record is less so — two more years at a $5 million AAV for Mikhail Grabovski is looking bad right now, especially with the way Snow needs to maneuver with his forwards amid the likely departures of Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin and the possible departure of Frans Nielsen on July 1.
So here’s a little breakdown of some of the possible UFAs when the shopping spree begins, with advanced metrics courtesy of Hockey Analysis and contract info from General Fanager.
Steven Stamkos would be the blue-ribbon prize should he get to July 1, and given that his Lightning is a win away from a trip to the Stanley Cup final without him, it seems a safe bet Stamkos will be a UFA.
For the Islanders, the biggest concern is money. If Snow drops a seven-year, $70-million deal on Stamkos, he’ll need to do the same or better for John Tavares in two years. Unless the cap goes up significantly, that would leave roughly $32 million of cap space tied up in four players in 2018-19 (Tavares, Stamkos, Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk). Make it roughly $37 million if the Isles bring back Nielsen.
That’s about 40 percent of the cap on five players. Five essential ones, mind you, but still only five. Snow would have to turn into a Stan Bowman-type wizard with the Hawks to make a roster work around those figures.
And yet, the temptation to give the Isles a 1-2 punch akin to Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin or Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane truly could be tempting to Snow and the incoming majority owners.
Stamkos has played the majority of his five-on-five minutes the past two seasons with Ryan Callahan and Alex Killorn, two solid, unspectacular players. He’s bounced around linemates quite a bit so that wouldn’t faze him with the Isles, a team that regularly juggles its forward lines. Stamkos and Tavares apart would give opposing teams trouble and putting them together for occasional shifts, like the Penguins do with Crosby and Malkin, could cause further headaches.
There’s a lot to be tempted by if Stamkos reaches the open market. And a lot for Stamkos himself to be tempted by with the Islanders, who probably have the best team right now that could offer Stamkos eight figures per season.
The Islanders will need wingers if, as it still seems, Okposo heads elsewhere. Ladd was a considerating at the trade deadline, but Snow wasn’t interested in dealing his first-round pick this coming June plus any of his top three forward prospects for the chance to rent Ladd.
July 1 is a different story.
Ladd is 30, he’s been very durable over his 11-year career and he’s been a top-line left wing in Winnipeg, where he posted very good EV possession numbers alongside Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. He could handle getting big minutes on Tavares’ left for sure.
He was the Jets’ captain as well, and that leadership experience would help the Islanders. Coming off a six-year deal with a very reasonable $4.4 million AAV, he’ll be looking to hit a home run in free agency. Would the Isles go to six years in the $6 million AAV range? They may have to considering how many suitors Ladd will have.
Eriksson had a bounce-back season with the Bruins, returning to the 30-goal mark he last hit in 2008-09 with the Stars. Aside from a rough first season in Boston, he’s been a consistent performer in Dallas and Beantown. The thing that’s missing is postseason experience, with Eriksson having been to the playoffs only three times in 10 seasons.
His possession numbers have been good the past few years, however, and that’s playing with different Bruins centers. He’s also a good power-play performer, which the Islanders will need in Okposo’s absence.
His UFA numbers may likely be close to Ladd’s as they’re the same age and have roughly the same numbers. Six years would be a lot to commit to Eriksson, who doesn’t leap off the page or the ice as a difference-maker.
The only other pending UFA wing who would bring a commanding presence and resume is Milan Lucic. Hard to believe he’s still only 27 (he turns 28 on June 7), with all the success he’s had in Boston, but Lucic appears perhaps not to fit in the Kings’ tight cap situation.
Lucic has been a strong possession player on strong possession teams. He played primarily with Anze Kopitar and Tyler Toffoli in L.A. this season, so he can handle the big minutes. He may not be an elite scorer, but he hasn’t played with the likes of Tavares for a full season.
And there’s no questioning his intensity, something the Isles could always use.
He got paid early and often in his career, coming off a three-year deal at a $6 million AAV. He’d certainly like to go longer term, especially if he’s changing teams again. Lucic also has a good friend in Boychuk already in the Isles room.
In a pipe-dream world, if Snow could somehow shed a couple of the weighty contracts (Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin, Josh Bailey) and add Stamkos and Lucic, that would likely be the ideal July 1 for everyone.
Boedker is more a second-tier option, without a real track record of offensive success and some pretty poor possession metrics, albeit with the Avs and Coyotes, two lousy possession teams the past few seasons.
He’s only 26, though, and a longtime friend of Nielsen, a fellow Dane. If the Isles miss out on the big names, Boedker could be an acceptable fallback, especially if Nielsen returns.
Backes has the leadership pedigree the Isles would covet but perhaps not the level of play to really elevate the top line. He’s 32 and it’s a hard decade of physical hockey he’s played in St. Louis.
If Nielsen leaves, however, Backes would be more than acceptable as a second- or third-line center, power-play and penalty-kill helper and all-around good presence as one of the highest character players in the league. That would be worth three or four years at $5-6 million AAV for sure.
McGinn is another intriguing name from the second level of UFA wingers. He’ll be 28 in August and cracked the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career this season, when the Ducks picked him up from the Sabres at the trade deadline. Not necessarily a difference-maker but he still has plenty left in the tank.
If, as expected, Martin takes a big offer elsewhere, the Isles may want to retool that fourth line. They could do worse than Viktor Stalberg, the big wing who had a decent season with the Rangers after getting few offers. Stalberg fits the Isles’ mold of a physical player who can skate and could be a versatile addition to the bottom six.
This isn’t everyone, of course, just a sampling of some of those who could be free on July 1. None of them could make it there and we’d have to return the last week of June with a whole new list.
Most GMs and agents would tell you it’s far too early to predict who goes where or who wants whom. That’s part of the fun, though, isn’t it?