In a feature on the Florida Panthers in The Athletic, columnist Sean McIndoe (@DownGoesBrown) wrote about the bold moves the team made after winning the Presidents' Trophy the previous regular season. He credits moves that disrupted the team's core, including the acquisition of Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames, for changing the team's culture instead of just talking about it.
"They didn't run it back; they didn't stay the course," wrote McIndoe about the Panthers, which got us thinking, is that what the Islanders are still doing?
The Islanders absolutely ran it back for the 2021-22 season.
The team had just pushed the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning to the limit, losing 1-0 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals, and spent the summer extending Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech and then announcing the contract extensions of Casey Cizikas, Kyle Palmieri, Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin. Everyone applauded.
They regrettably lost Jordan Eberle in the expansion draft to the Seattle Kraken, but beyond that, the only changes were signing 37-year-old Zach Parise and signing 44-year-old Zdeno Chara in September, a few weeks before the start of the season as defenseman Andy Greene retired. The Islanders were running it back, and it's what most fans wanted.
But is that what they did last season?
The off-season began with a controversial coaching change when GM Lou Lamoriello relieved Barry Trotz of his duties in favor of longtime assistant coach Lane Lambert. On Draft Night, Lamoriello decided to trade his first-round pick for the third straight season, sending No. 13 overall to the Montreal Canadiens for strong skating and hard-hitting defenseman Alexander Romanov.
But that was it for a while. The off-season came and went with lots of smoke but no fire when it came first to Johnny Gaudreau, who may or may not have ever received a contract offer from the Islanders, and then Nazem Kadri. The free-agent center had gone unsigned for so long with no other teams attached to him that it became all but fact that Lamoriello and Kadri had agreed to terms with a contract in a drawer waiting for the Isles GM to move salary to make it work.
That didn't happen. Despite reported efforts to move Josh Bailey's contract or Anthony Beauvillier, the price was too high for Lamoriello. Kadri signed a seven-year contract with the Flames, and the Islanders started the 2022-23 season with one big change behind the bench and only one real change to their opening night roster with Romanov. They reluctantly were running it back.
But during the season, things changed. First, injuries led to Simon Holmstrom and Hudson Fasching getting regular top-nine minutes, with Fasching earning a two-year contract extension and a chance to stick as a regular and future fourth-liner with offensive upside. Lamoriello boldly traded an underperforming Beauvillier, top prospect Aatu Raty, and a 2023 first-round pick for All-Star center Bo Horvat. Bailey, the longest-tenured Islander, became a regular scratch toward the end of the season following the deadline acquisition of Pierre Engvall from the Maple Leafs and appears unlikely to be back next season one way or the other.
The Islanders changed their roster but were doing it slowly and incrementally. By extending Horvat, they didn't change the foundation of their core but added to it. Heading into this off-season with Lamoriello and Lambert presumably back, I'd expect the trend of incremental changes to continue with targeted moves to address the team's shortcomings.
Is that running it back? Maybe, to a degree.
They don't appear ready to make a Tkachuk-level move, but there also isn't a Tkachuk-level player demanding a trade and circling Long Island as their preferred destination. Tkachuk viewed the Panthers as a Stanley Cup contender because of the prior regular season, and instead of being proven very wrong, they rallied down the stretch to barely make the playoffs and have gotten hot at the right time. Otherwise, the narrative around the team and player would be very different.
Meanwhile, the Islanders are staying the course, likely with a few new passengers. Mathew Barzal is starting a new eight-year contract; Brock Nelson is aging but keeps improving and is coming off his best overall season. Anders Lee may have lost a step but is the team's captain and has a no-trade clause (NTC). Kyle Palmieri, like Nelson, has two years left on his contract with a modified NTC. Jean-Gabriel Pageau's skillset is likely attractive to the right team, but he has three years left on his contract with a modified NTC as well.
All this to say that it's hard to see significant changes coming to the roster this season, but it doesn't mean that they aren't coming. The Islanders are running some of it back while looking forward to a time when more significant and drastic changes to the team's core could be made. There's an argument that the time has come to force a move, and it has been there for two seasons, but the contract status of much of the team's core isn't ideal timing for that to happen - at least not yet.
After next season, the contracts of Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin are up, as is Bailey's, if he somehow is still on the roster. After the 2024-25 season, Noah Dobson and Romanov will be RFAs, along with UFAs, Nelson, and Palmieri. You can foresee next year being more of an inflection point than right now. Perhaps that's when the course changes if the results on the ice don't.