Islanders: Questions Remain as Draft, Free Agency Near

Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders, Robin Lehner

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The New York Islanders offseason started with question marks surrounding some of their key players, including Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Robin Lehner. Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello has said on multiple occasions that he would like to bring all four of them back. However, with the NHL Draft in Vancouver upon us and only two of the four aforementioned players signed – Eberle and Nelson – the next few weeks could prove to be very interesting for the Islanders.

Eberle and Nelson Return

After a “prove-it” season, Nelson, the Islanders’ 30th pick in 2010, signed a six-year extension worth $6 million per year in late May. Nelson had a career high in goals and points during the 2018-19 season, looking much more confident than in years past. His skating and defensive awareness were also noticeably better, making the Islanders a fairly strong team up the middle. In a recent interview with Newsday, Nelson had this to say about signing with the Islanders:

“I’m just happy to stay,” Nelson said. “I’m comfortable here, it’s the only place I’ve been. Steps have been taken and there’s a commitment to winning. It’s a fit for everybody and myself. It made sense to get it done and not let it drag on.”

From ‘Islanders, Brock Nelson agree to terms on six-year contract,’ Newsday, 05/23/2019

The Islanders also recently re-signed Eberle to a five-year contract after a strong first-round performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Many thought Eberle wouldn’t be back next season, choosing to use his playoff success to cash in on a big contract or by simply not fitting into Lamoriello’s long-term plans for the Islanders. Ultimately, the two sides were a good fit and have a bright future together.

“The biggest aspect is the camaraderie. We’re a tight team,” Eberle said. “In the back of my mind I knew free agency was an option, but it was a last-resort thing.” (from ‘What Jordan Eberle’s extension says about the Islanders offseason plan,’ The AthleticNHL – 6/4/19)

New York Islanders Jordan Eberle
New York Islanders Jordan Eberle skates by the bench after scoring a goal. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

His team-friendly $5.5 million over five years leaves the Islanders with plenty of room to re-sign Lee, Lehner, and possibly relieve a cash-strapped team like the Vegas Golden Knights.

Additionally, the Eberle signing continues the trend that players want to play on Long Island. The Islanders are a team moving in the right direction, and with Lamoriello at the helm and Barry Trotz behind the bench, this offseason could be huge for this team and its future.

Lee, Lehner, and More

After signing Eberle, the Islanders have around $22 million in cap space to work with, depending on where the cap ends up. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, the cap may be $82 million, “or an increase of only slightly more than $2 million.” This isn’t necessarily bad news for the Islanders, however. Even if Lee and Lehner, who have yet to sign, take up half of the team’s $22 million, the Islanders still have room to add some pieces to fill holes up front.

There’s also the issue of filling spots left by Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck if they aren’t ready for the start of the 2019-20 season. Clutterbuck’s injuries were significant and it could take up to six months for him to recover. Ladd has been riddled with injuries and remains a question mark heading into next season. He’s been a shell of his former self and, at times, a liability on the ice. With prospects and players in Bridgeport fighting for spots in addition to possible trades, there may not be room or time for Ladd to get his playing back to where he once was.

New York Islanders Anders Lee Dallas Stars Anton Khudobin
Islanders captain Anders Lee is a free agent this summer. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Islanders Defensive Unit is Crowded

The Islanders homegrown talent on defense, consisting of Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Ryan Pulock, and Devon Toews, took enormous strides this season under Trotz. Those four began to eat up important minutes and earned the trust of the coaches as the season progressed. This leaves Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and Thomas Hickey left to fight for the remaining two spots. Boychuck or Leddy, who have cap hits of $6 and $5.5 million respectively, would be an expensive seventh defenseman to take up a roster spot, especially if Lamoriello wants to sign a free agent or make a trade. When Hickey was ready to return last season following his injury, he was the odd-man out, allowing Toews to continue his impressive season.

Leddy has been the target of trade rumors as of late. His skating ability could be an asset on any team, especially one looking for a second pair defenseman. The Islanders will be looking for more help up front and Leddy could be packaged with a pick and/or a prospect to make that happen.

It will be interesting to see what the Islanders do in the next few weeks. The team took an enormous step forward during the 2018-19 season and many expect Lamoriello to be in on the big names available on July 1. There may also be trade movement on the draft floor, as teams shuffle players to stay under the cap.

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