A bridge too short? Noah Dobson's deal could cost Islanders in future years

Columbus Blue Jackets v New York Islanders
Columbus Blue Jackets v New York Islanders / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

Noah Dobson was a breakout star for the New York Islanders during the 2021-22 season, a bright spot in a season that only flickered with optimism after an eleven-game winless streak all but extinguished realistic hopes of a playoff berth. On Monday, the team announced that the 22-year-old defenseman had signed a three-year contract extension with an AAV of $4M per year.

I'm obviously really excited. Looking back to the second half of the year, I was happy with the steps I took. In the offseason, I'm just trying to really use the extra time we've had to take another step this year, and I'm just excited about the next three years to be able to continue and grow.
Noah Dobson

Heading into 2022-23, Dobson remains one of the few players on the current roster that evokes feelings of untapped potential and a ceiling that has yet to be reached. As a restricted free agent (RFA), the only drama was whether the Islanders would sign him to a bridge deal or negotiate a long-term extension. On Monday, we learned that although both sides were 'open-minded' to a number of possibilities, they landed on a shorter deal.

Why did the Islanders prefer a bridge deal for Dobson?

When considering whether a bridge deal or long-term contract is best for an organization, there are multiple factors for the general manager to weigh. In this case, the main were 1) how a long-term contract with a higher AAV would impact the salary cap? 2) how much more will the player improve?

While signing Dobson to a modest $4M AAV leaves the Islanders some salary cap flexibility during this and future off-seasons, based on G.M. Lou Lamoriello's comments, the decision to not pursue a longer deal was about wanting to see if Dobson could sustain his offensive success and take positive steps in the areas of his game that require improvement.

“He has to continue to grow the way he did this year,” Lamoriello said when questioned about a possible long-term extension. “We have to see a little more from Noah to make that long-term decision.”

For Dobson, that means showing that his second-half offensive production can be sustained throughout a full 82-game season as a focal point of opposing teams. In addition, Dobson must become more reliable in his own zone and avoid some of the common young defenseman mistakes that plagued him last season.

Some fans have pointed to the presence of Zdeno Chara being a hindrance, at least on the ice, for Dobson last season. This year, he's expected to be paired at the start with Alexander Romanov, who unlike Dobson is looking to add offense to his game that already boasts physical play in his own end. The pair should have the luxury of not being matched up against opponent's top lines, with that responsibility remaining with Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. The environment should be friendly enough for them to be a very productive and steady pairing.

How could Noah Dobson's deal cost the NY Islanders in future years?

In recent years, teams have more frequently opted to sign their young, proven NHL players to long-term contracts rather than "bridge" the years between their Entry Level Contract (ELC) and when a six, seven, or even eight-year deal is signed.

Last month, Shayna Goldman of The Athletic was on the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast and provided insight into a possible Dobson's extension.

I like looking at similarity scores based on players within (Dobson's) age range that had similar seasons on both ends of the ice. His top comps after this past season were Seth Jones, Cam Fowler, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Oscar Klefbom, Shea Theodore, and (Ryan) Pulock ahead of him. Those are all really encouraging that I think should tell the Islanders this is someone who could be a top pairing defenseman which is why I think going with a bridge deal, which they might do to ease their (salary) cap situation, is a mistake because I think he'll earn that much more on his next contract.
Shanya Goldman, The Athletic

By locking up the player earlier, you offering more money and certainty up front in exchange for a lower AAV with the hope that his play exceeds the value of the contract. Reading the tea leaves, Dobson's camp were looking for a long-term offer that never came from Lamoriello and the Islanders. A deal that looks team-friendly now could become very expensive after the 2024-25 season provided that Dobson becomes the top-pair defenseman with All-Star potential that so many around and outside the organization thinks he can become.

If it does happen, the Islanders will have the good, albeit expensive problem of trying to lock up Dobson to a long-term extension when he's a RFA in 2025. Rather than running the risk that Dobson wouldn't continue to elevate his game and be worth a long-term deal, the bridge contract puts the Islanders in the potential position of having to pay a much higher AAV for some of Dobson's prime years than they would have if a long-term deal was pursued.