Graziano: Which Free Agents Should Islanders Re-Sign?

Andy Graziano
May 19, 2019 - 8:08 am

The offseason might have begun too early for everyone, team and fans alike, but the time to get back to work is now as the New York Islanders begin preparations for the 2019-20 season.

What that entails are contract negotiations, a look at the trade market, the NHL draft (Islanders have the 23rd pick) and the official beginning of free agency, all leading up to training camp in September when the team will attempt to avoid taking a backward step off a fantastic first season under Barry Trotz.

Team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello still has something to prove in terms of his roster management, which will be tested more so this summer coming off a series of hits and misses during his tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Make no mistake, the players Lamoriello brought over in his first attempt at shaping the Islanders paid dividends. Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula and Matt Martin all combined to gel with the existing squad and form a tight bond that lasted into the playoffs. But this summer is a much bigger challenge and one that could very well define the future of how this team heads into Belmont Park – once shovels are finally in the ground, mind you.

Lamoriello took responsibility, and rightfully so, for not being able to close the deal at the trading deadline this past season. The Islanders badly needed additional scoring, which became evident in their second-round sweep by the Carolina Hurricanes. Now trades don’t guarantee anything (ask the Columbus Blue Jackets). However, in a year when so many top seeds got knocked out of the first round, you can’t help but feel a real opportunity went begging.

With the salary cap expected to rise to approximately $83 million, the Islanders look to be sitting nicely positioned with around $35 million to spend on reshaping the roster. Reshaping will not be easy though, as New York sits with some high-profile free agents that shouldn’t be expected to take any hometown discount and the aforementioned scoring issue still needs to be addressed.

The trade market is even more difficult, as it takes two teams to tango and player availability seems to change on a minute’s notice. Let’s begin our offseason coverage by looking at the in-house options first. All players below are unrestricted free agents.

Anders Lee, 28 – Lee is now the Islanders captain, which I thought was a mistake back in September. Not because of who Lee is as a person or player, but I felt Lamoriello lost a lot of leverage in dealing with Neil Sheehy, Anders’ agent. Not that Lou really cares, but it would be a PR disaster should the team lose their captain for the second year in a row. Wingers who have scored 117 goals in 325 games (average 29.5) over the past four years, missing only three games, do not grow on trees.

Anders Lee

On the negative side, Lee had a very disappointing playoff, scoring only one empty-net goal in eight games, and doesn’t seem like the kind of player who would last over the course of a seven- or eight-year term in terms of ‘bang for the buck.’

If you learned anything from the last offseason, there is no loyalty in sports anymore. We are out of the age of Steve Yzerman and Ray Bourque. I don’t doubt Lee’s intentions or heart when he talks about the team and his desire to stay. If Lou starts to really push and pull with Sheehy though, the door opens for someone to come sneaking in with a seven-year term that is north of $7 million per year, a figure Lamoriello might be hesitant to match.

At the end of the day though, the strong consensus is that Lee remains in blue and orange.

Brock Nelson, 27 – On a team that has very little center depth, Brock Nelson is the team’s best two-way pivot. Don’t @ me, you know it’s true. Despite his maddening inconsistency and sometimes soft play, you can’t ignore the fact that Nelson has scored 20+ goals in four of his six seasons and has missed only 12 games in that span.

This year was his best by far under the guidance and system of Trotz, and he couldn’t have picked a better time for it. With the knowledge that the head coach isn’t going anywhere, there is no reason to doubt that this is the real Nelson we saw and will continue to see going forward, should he remain in the fold.

Matt Duchene is the only potential free agent center arguably better than Nelson, and the bidding war for him is expected to be intense. Are you betting on the Islanders and their two-arena circus to beat all other team pitches? I wouldn’t. Kevin Hayes is on par and others include Jason Spezza, Derick Brassard and Marcus Johansson.

Nelson might be a harder challenge than getting Lee to put pen to paper. I’d guess 60/40 odds to stay with the Islanders.

Jordan Eberle, 29 – Tough year for Eberle, who wrestled with a personal off-ice issue and never could get going during the regular season, finishing with 19-18-37, his lowest goal and point totals since his rookie season way back in 2010-11. He is a terrific player and has a proven track record, averaging 25 goals per season over 666 NHL games, and has fit in nicely when playing with Mathew Barzal. The playoffs are when Eberle came alive and led the team to a sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Lou looks elsewhere to upgrade his scoring woes, and someone comes in and gives Eberle $7 million per season.

Valtteri Filppula, 35 – Filppula came in and did an admirable job as the third-center for Trotz and was very reliable defensively, which is first and foremost the priority for all players within this system. His scoring was incredibly consistent at 35-years-old, as he maintained a consistent 20-goal pace straight through 72 games.

If I’m Lou, I bring Filppula back on a cheap one-year deal. If there is indeed mutual interest, this should be a slam dunk.

Tom Kuhnhackl, 27 – Kuhnhackl did a respectable job when he got the chance, but he’ll be dressing up in a different jersey come training camp. There are already too many ‘grinders’ on this team.

Luca Sbisa, 29 and Dennis Seidenberg, 37 – Sbisa wanted out all year for a chance to play, and it didn’t happen. He’s surely gone. Seidenberg was a good mentor for Barzal, thus kept around on a ‘practice squad’ of sorts. Can see a similar arrangement working out for both parties this year.

Robin Lehner, 27 – What to do….what to do. Lehner is coming off a remarkable season, both personally and professionally. He is a worthy finalist for both the Masterton (which he will win) and Vezina trophies along with sharing the Jennings award with Thomas Greiss for the fewest goals allowed. Lehner set career highs in wins (25), goals against average (2.13) and save percentage (.930) while posting six shutouts and 61% quality start percentage.

Apr 28, 2019; New York Islanders goalie Robin Lehner makes a save against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period of game two of the second round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

Lamoriello must tread lightly here as Lehner and his agent should be looking to get rewarded for such accomplishments and know that the Islanders don’t have anything in the imminent pipeline to come in. Greiss only has one more year on his deal before hitting unrestricted free agency himself.

It’s fools gold, in my opinion, to lock Lehner up for anything more than three years at around $4.5 million if they are sure Ilya Sorokin is coming…. eventually. Lehner credited the Islanders with helping him navigate the rough waters of sobriety and anxiety this past season and really seemed to embrace Long Island. He comes back…. But likely on Lou’s terms.

Next week is vacation time for me, so I’ll be back the week after with a look at the Islanders restricted free agent situation and their options on the open market to fix the scoring woes.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN.