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Taub: Free Agency Once Again Brings Highs and Lows for Isles

July 1 always is a tense day for the New York Islanders and their fans. It was set to be no different this time around.

The Isles came into today’s free agency period with a number of possibilities that could have shifted the dynamic of the franchise, mainly trying to land star forward Artemi Panarin.

As of last night, the sense around the league was that the Islanders were the favorites to land the 27-year-old sniper; TSN’s Bob McKenzie was the first to report it. That same feeling was apparent this morning, until it wasn’t.

Just as noon was approaching, things began to get a little hairy once the New York Rangers dealt forward Jimmy Vesey to Buffalo, essentially clearing up cap space and allowing them to offer Panarin possibly more money to come headline Broadway. The Islanders were basically dead in the water once that transaction unfolded.

Panarin of course, signed with the Blueshirts right after the opening bell for a million dollars less than what Lou Lamoriello and Co. were offering him. It was another kick in the groin for the Isles and their fans, and subtle reminder that they will never have the same appeal as their Manhattan neighbors no matter how much they make progress towards becoming a constant winner again.

Just like it’s always been, the Isles were once again the bridesmaid, not the bride. In fact, as one person said in an perfect take on the situation, “the Islanders weren’t even at the wedding”.

So with Panarin off the board, it was time to turn back to Anders Lee.

All of last week, the rumblings came out that Lee and the Isles had yet to be on the same page. Even yesterday, the word was he might have been a goner. To many, this situation felt like it was turning into a nightmare to the Isles faithful for the plain fact that they saw another captain walk last year for nothing, John Tavares. But hours following Panarin’s decision — and Lou going radio silent — a deal was struck.

Lee signing for seven years at $49 million was met with mixed feelings, but overall many were happy that he is staying on Long Island. It was definitely reassuring to the fan base as well that he was steadfast in his thinking that he didn’t want to go anywhere else.

“Long Island is my home,” Lee told reporters after he signed.

Lee’s agent, Neil Sheehy, doubled down on his client’s commitment to the Isles. He tweeted out, “There was NEVER a moment on this FA Day where it was even a possibility that Anders Lee was going to leave the Islanders no matter what else happened. This type of “FAKE NEWS” fries my bananas! Anders Lee said the most important quality in a teammate is “LOYALTY” and he meant it.”

Once Lee was secured, all eyes were now on whether the Isles could bring back Vezina finalist Robin Lehner.

The background with Lehner was comparable to Lee’s situation over the talking period, with term being the difference. There was still a feeling though that he and the team could find a way to come to an agreement. Then in the last 48 hours, things went south. And now Lehner is a Chicago Blackhawk.

There’s been conflicting quotes from both Lehner and Lamoriello about what took place during negotiations. But all that doesn’t matter now as the Isles lost out on the youngest goalie on the market — Lehner is 27.

Seeing Lehner leave also hurts because he was the man who formed a duo with Thomas Greiss to win the William Jennings Memorial Trophy, the man who’s story at redemption touched the hearts of Islander fans, and the man who embodied what last year’s group was all about.

It’s another bitter pill to swallow because of how popular Lehner was in the locker room and to the organization his entire year here.

That brings us to Lehner’s replacement, Semyon Varlamov.

Varlamov, 31 and a supposedly Lamoriello’s top option, signed on for the next four years at $5M per season.  Reports had come out that he might have been attached at the hip to Panarin coming, but he ends up coming here alone. The Kuybyshev, Russia native is coming off a subpar 2018-19 season where he went 20-19-9 in 49 appearances.

A lot of the fan base are turned off by his addition mostly due to the amount of money Varlamov is being paid. The frustration also definitely lies with what Lehner was signed for compared to what Varlamov was just handed.

There is a caveat to Varlamov’s contract though: he being the bridge to fellow Russian Ilya Sorokin finally making his way and possibly being here to help him adjust to North America.

Sorokin, drafted back in 2014, has long been deemed the guy to help finally solve the franchises’ woes in goal. He’s been in the KHL since the Isles picked him and has emerged as the best goalie prospect in the league and let alone the world.

Lamoriello has made it clear since he took over the Isles last May that he is willing to do anything in his power to bring the Sorokin over. With Varlamov now in the fold, the chances of that happening increases . So there’s good and bad that comes with the decision.

With $8.5 million left in cap space, Lamoriello still has the opportunity to make a few more moves to improve the team.

Names like Marcus Johansson, Brian Boyle and Ryan Dzingel are still out there. Lamoriello could even go the offer sheet route — highly unlikely though — or try to wheel and deal. Those are questions that will be answered over the next week or the next few months.

Right now though, today marked another up-and-down day for the Islanders organization and the fans. Something that has become all to familiar.

Follow me on Twitter @RTaub_

About Rob Taub

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