With three days until the NHL’s trade deadline at 3 p.m. ET on Friday, we won’t know if the New York Islanders are buyers or sellers until a deal is made. That’s just how things are with president of hockey operations and general manager Lou Lamoriello running the ship.
It’s certainly frustrating for the fan base that appears to be in limbo but it also keeps 99% of the hockey media in the dark — so the only thing left to do as the clock ticks down is assess what the Islanders are looking at here.
Why the Islanders could be buyers
To put it simply, it’s because they’re still in the thick of the postseason picture.
Despite a stretch that saw them lose 10 of 11 games from January to February, the Islanders have won eight of their last 13 and collected points in 10 of those matchups prior to their Tuesday-night matchup in Minnesota against the Wild.
They currently hold the top Wild Card spot in the East, but there’s a ton of work to do and at least one more hot streak necessary to ease some nerves. As of Tuesday morning, the Islanders had 69 points in 63 games played. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who own the second Wild Card spot, are just two points back and have played four fewer games.
The Buffalo Sabres, who are three points back, have played five fewer games and the Detroit Red Wings at 64 points also have four games in hand.
Plus, with likely Vezina-nominee Ilya Sorokin in their ranks, the Islanders should find themselves in most games as long as the star netminder is in form.
Why they could be sellers
It certainly feels like the window of contention is all but shut for an Islanders team that is one of the oldest in the league, is stuck in a dicey salary cap situation, and doesn’t have the organizational depth to remain a top team in the Metropolitan Division.
Key contributors are currently on expiring contracts that can see them hit free agency this summer and deciding not to move them runs the risk of eliminating any sort of chance to build capital that has been lost in recent trades made by Lamoriello over the last four seasons.
So, if there isn’t a legitimate belief within the front office that the Islanders can’t make a push for a Stanley Cup — and it certainly doesn’t look like that right now — then Lamoriello could decide to start selling a few long-standing names.
What do they need?
There are two glaring needs that the Islanders must address if they truly want to make a stronger postseason push: Another scorer and a veteran defenseman.
With Mathew Barzal out week-to-week, the Islanders find themselves short once again of playmaking options — something that appeared to be addressed by the acquisition and subsequent eight-year extension of Bo Horvat.
In recent weeks, the Islanders have been forced to put the likes of Josh Bailey, Matt Martin, and Simon Holmstrom — all of whom lack a top-tier scoring threat — on the first line. The Barzal injury proceeded head coach Lane Lambert to then break up the successful second unit of Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Kyle Palmieri, and move Lee up to the first line.
Potential trade options include Max Domi of the Chicago Blackhawks, Nick Schmaltz of the Arizona Coyotes, James van Riemsdyk of the Philadelphia Flyers, or Kevin LeBanc of the San Jose Sharks.
When it comes to the defense, New York has been nowhere near as resolute as it had been under former coach Barry Trotz. There have been growing pains with young blueliner Alexander Romanov — who was acquired for a first-rounder at the NHL Draft last summer — which forced Lambert to break up the pairing with Noah Dobson.
Scott Mayfield has also had his fair share of turnover issues — he and Romanov rank 10th and 12th in the NHL respectively in giveaways (h/t MoneyPuck) — while Sebastian Aho has struggled to find any sort of consistency as a sixth defenseman.
A proven veteran can bring added stability to the Islanders’ blue line and allow Lambert to reunite his top pairing in Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech, which he broke up last week, in the process and allow more wiggle room to rely less on whichever young defenseman is struggling more.
John Klingberg of the Anaheim Ducks or Shayne Gostisbehere, also of the Coyotes, could be names Lamoriello could look at.
What assets do they have?
Ultimately, this boils down to how much Lamoriello would be willing to either give up to make that final push or let go if he wants to sell.
Semyon Varlamov has helped create one of the best goalie duos in the league by backing up Ilya Sorokin, but his contract is up after this season and the 34-year-old will likely be offered starting-goalie money on the open market. It’s a foregone conclusion that teams have called the Islanders about Varlamov and despite his desire to stay and re-sign with the team, a first-round draft pick could be an enticing start to a trade conversation.
Mayfield is also on an expiring contract that teams in need of defensive depth could take a look at. He’s struggled this season on the third pairing but he’s shown an ability to succeed in a well-organized system and has the playoff experience teams crave.
Thirty-eight-year-old winger Zach Parise, who has been one of the Islanders’ most consistent forwards since signing last season, plays a versatile brand of hockey that is perfect for the postseason. His affordable contract is up after this season, as well.
In terms of draft picks, the Islanders have all of them except a top-12 protected first-rounder in 2023, but for teams looking for young players, there isn’t much to boast about. A thin farm system is headlined by winger William Dufour and defenseman Samuel Bolduc, but the team’s top prospect in Aatu Raty was dealt to the Vancouver Canucks in the Horvat deal.