The coronavirus (COVID-19) brought the entire sports world to a halt yesterday. Every major professional sports league, including the National Hockey League, suspended its operations as a means to slow the spread of the pandemic and save lives. In the case of the New York Islanders, who were supposed to play Calgary last night and in Edmonton tonight, the most important thing was getting back home to their families and loved ones.
They did. It was confirmed this morning.
Before all of what has unfolded the last two days though, a myriad of questions still remained about where the Isles’ season was heading. They had just lost their seventh game in a row (0-3-4) in a 5-4 shootout loss to Vancouver. They still found themselves still on the outside looking in of the Eastern Conference playoff picture sitting one point behind both wild card spots with 14 games remaining. And they still didn’t have any timetable for when Casey Cizikas and Johnny Boychuk — who were both recovering from skate cuts — could possibly return.
No one knows when the NHL will make its return, but when they do, things could be very interesting for the Islanders on many fronts.
If the season does resume at this time a month or possibly longer than that from now, depending on whether commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL’s Board of Governors go the route of continuing the regular season or straight to postseason play, the Isles will most likely have Boychuk and Cizikas back. Even more important, d-man Adam Pelech — who suffered an Achilles injury from taking part in a pregame soccer kick-around back on January 3rd — would be closer to returning. Having two if not all three of those key pieces back would bring the Islanders back to full strength, and could allow head coach Barry Trotz the ability to roll four lines again.
It would also be a major upgrade for an Isles team who would be faced with the daunting task of facing the Boston Bruins in the first round. ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski tweeted out that would be the matchup if the regular season did indeed end yesterday based on winning percentage.
The Islanders could also have their highly-touted goalie prospect, Ilya Sorokin, in North America finally. Sorokin, the 24-year-old Russian netminder deemed the “best goaltender not playing in the NHL right now”, was slated to make his decision once the KHL season ended. As of yesterday, the KHL is still having games played albeit them in empty arenas.
The addition of Sorokin would do two things: 1) Relieve the fans that their supposed franchise goaltender is no longer a question mark, 2) Give the team another overall boost they need to build momentum heading into the offseason.
Now if there are no more games played and the season does get officially canceled, the offseason becomes another tricky situation.
Besides the draft and the RFAs who will probably all be signed to new deals, a few key names that comprise this team — Andrew Ladd, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield — are all up in the air. Martin is set to become an unrestricted free agent, and despite being Long Island royalty, the Isles have someone who has already taken on his role in Ross Johnston. As for Ladd and Komarov, g.m. Lou Lamoriello might have to find ways to buy out either or one of them. It’s painfully obvious the Isles need to get younger and higher-skilled players, mainly on the second and third lines. Ridding the organization of either of those contracts will provide Lamoriello more flexibility to improve the current roster.
Leddy is another interesting case. He’s got two years remaining on his seven-year, $38.5 million deal which will take him to age 30. This season though, he struggled when asked to play heavier minutes and his production wasn’t nearly what we’re used to seeing. Trotz has always acknowledged that he likes Leddy and he’s untradeable. But with the lack of finishers still a huge hole and the emergence of Pelech and Ryan Pulock the past two seasons, does that prompt Lamoriello to deal Leddy to get some offensive firepower that this organization desperately needs?
Mayfield is also a question mark. Could he bring back a decent return or is he another trade chip?
The Isles do have a 20-year-old Noah Dobson who is supposed to be future on the team’s blue line and is already in the NHL; they also have a prospect, Parker Wotherspoon, who had a very solid season in Bridgeport before their season was also suspended.
Mayfield is still 27, which is still considered young. His contract is an absolute bargain for a top-6 defenseman. But his regression defensively from the middle of the year until now has been tough to watch, especially after the good season he had prior. There’s also his skating — which he’s worked on endlessly to improve — just not being up to par on too many occasions. The same can be said about his decision making with and without the puck.
Along with those players, would Lamoriello possibly break up the core? Would he deal Josh Bailey? Anthony Beauvillier? Johnny Boychuk? It seems unlikely, but Lamoriello isn’t afraid to shake things up when he sees complacency sets in.
Maybe Lou goes all in and goes big-game hunting.
Taylor Hall and Mike Hoffman will be the top free agent forwards in the summer, and both would immediately transform the Isles’ attack. They would also give center Mathew Barzal the scoring winger he needs to take his game to the next level. Either of them would cost a lot to sign and would take some roster reconstruction. The Islanders’ window still opening, so moves as such would help them make that leap from just a playoff team to Stanley Cup contender.
All these options are on the table, and while we all wait for the season to resume, they’re worth thinking about.
Stay safe everybody.
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