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Assessing state of Islanders ahead of NHL's free agency opening | amNewYork

Assessing state of Islanders ahead of NHL’s free agency opening

The Islanders were two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final this season. A top scorer could help see their way over the top. (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Friday begins the NHL’s free agency period and with it, an opportunity for the New York Islanders to acquire the top-line, scoring winger that they’ve so desperately craved over the last few seasons. 

It won’t come without its fair share of difficulties considering the lack of salary cap space the team has while having to re-sign the likes of Mathew Barzal, Ryan Pulock, and Devon Toews — amongst others. 

General manager Lou Lamoriello would have to find a way to shed sizable contracts hampering the Islanders’ books, whether it’s in the form of Johnny Boychuk’s or Nick Leddy’s or Andrew Ladd’s. 

Certainly, a difficult task for the Hall-of-Fame executive to pull off considering none of those three contracts are necessarily desirable. But the mysterious ways of Lamoriello — who’s exterior dealings and intentions are usually kept under strict lock and key — only ensures that Islanders fans and a majority of those who cover the team won’t actually know what’s happening until it actually happens. 

What can be ascertained is that Lamoriello is working on retaining a majority of the core that brought the Islanders to their first Eastern Conference Final in 27 years last month. That means retaining Barzal, Pulock, and Toews. That means bringing back Derick Brassard to bolster the lower lines — a move that has many scratching their heads right now.

History suggests though — while Lamoriello will always be hard to read — is that he is looking for that elusive top-notch goal scorer whether that’s Taylor Hall or Mike Hoffman or even an Evgenii Dadonov or Anthony Duclair this offseason. 

Why?

Just look at how he went after Artemi Panarin last season. Lamoriello and the Islanders offered Panarin more money to play on Long Island before the star winger opted to take less and play for the crosstown-rival Rangers. The intent was there, and it should continue once free agency kicks off.

Whether the Islanders will be successful in finding that missing piece and ensuring they have enough cap space to make it happen is an entirely different conversation. 

What a potential acquisition like that does though cannot be undersold. It goes without saying what a competent scoring winger would do on the first line and for the Islanders’ sputtering offense and power play — regarded as its glaring Achilles heel during the Lamoriello and Barry Trotz era. 

What it also does is stabilize the bottom six forwards with talent that normally would be on the top two lines of most NHL rosters. 

Signing a Hall or Hoffman creates one of the most dangerous first lines in all of hockey alongside Barzal and Jordan Eberle. Meanwhile, it allows left-winger Anders Lee — who has spent the last two seasons on the first line — to move down to the third line. There’s little reason for the second line of Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson, and Josh Bailey to be broken up any time soon. 

Such a move for the Islanders’ captain shouldn’t be seen as a demotion, but more rooted in preservation efforts. Lee plays a hard-nosed style of hockey that constantly sees him getting beat up in front of the net or on the back boards while in the offensive zone. Playing five fewer minutes a night could do wonders in keeping him fresher longer. 

That also leaves the Islanders with a third line that would be the envy of the NHL in Lee, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Derick Brassard — the latter two having played together during the playoffs and leaving the likes of Philadelphia Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault in awe. 

“How many teams in the NHL have Pageau and Brassard on their third line?,” he pondered during their second-round series against the Islanders. “It’s just a real solid team from the forward group to the D group.”

A team that becomes that much more solid with just one big move that could be lurking up Lamoriello’s sleeve. 

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