Evaluating the NY Islanders' internal options to pair with Scott Mayfield next season

The Isles will have a hole to fill on the blue line this upcoming offseason.

Mar 14, 2024; Buffalo, New York, USA;  New York Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho (25) takes a shot
Mar 14, 2024; Buffalo, New York, USA; New York Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho (25) takes a shot / Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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The NY Islanders have 11 games remaining in the 2023-24 season. With a 30-26-15 record, the team remains 4 points behind the Washington Capitals for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. For the Isles to make the playoffs, they would also have to jump the Detroit Red Wings who remain 3 points ahead with 78 on the season. In what seemed like a realistic possibility just 7 games ago, the Islanders have now fallen 6 points behind the Metropolitan Division's third-place Philadelphia Flyers. Suffice it to say, the 'good guys' are missing out on an integral opportunity.

Since the team seems likely to be on the outside looking in on a playoff spot come mid-April, it is time for the front office to begin evaluating next season's roster. One of the spots that will be open for competition come the offseason is the left-handed bottom defensive position. Regardless of fans' opinion of Scott Mayfield, his 7-year contract with a $3.5 million cap-hit for 2024-25 is untradable, not to mention he received a partial no-trade clause. For Mayfield to bounce back, he will need to be paired with a steady linemate, preferably someone he has experience with. Of the 3 on the Islanders' current roster who are not guaranteed to return, who makes the most sense, and who is the most realistic?

Mike Reilly makes the most sense.

The Islanders have only played one game this season with all of their projected defensemen in 2023-24: opening night against the Buffalo Sabres. Since then, Mayfield has missed time on 2 separate occasions with a lower-body injury. Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock each missed 24 games while Robert Bortuzzo was just activated from LTIR with a lower-body injury. Let's not forget Sebastian Aho missed time as well with an upper-body injury. 

As a result, Lou Lamoriello had to search for a defenseman externally to help fill the ice time missed by the team's regulars. His first move was easily his best decision since trading for Bo Horvat last season. On November 25th, the Islanders claimed 30-year-old defenseman Mike Reilly off waivers from the Florida Panthers. In 48 games played since then, Reilly has scored 5 goals and 13 assists with 46 blocked shots and 41 hits. Among all the defensemen, he only trails Noah Dobson in points at 18.

Reilly is certainly the most deserving of being a part of the 2024-25 Islanders. His unexpected offensive explosion this season has made up for the production missed by Pelech. Had it not been for Reilly, the Isles would have had to trade more draft capital to replace all of their regulars. The only drawback will be the contract he demands in free agency. Already with just $7 million in cap space per Spotrac for next season with multiple RFA's on the roster, Lamoriello will have to get creative if he wants to retain Reilly. While the 30-year-old makes the most sense production-wise, Reilly unfortunately seems to be the most unrealistic option.

Samuel Bolduc is the most realistic.

When the Isles projected their defensive lineup for an opening night during training camp, they had one open competition: who would play alongside Mayfield? Coming off a productive 2022-23 season, Aho was the favorable candidate since he had already shown chemistry with Mayfield previously. However, 23-year-old Samuel Bolduc earned himself an opportunity as well given his strong showing down the stretch last season. In 17 games, Bolduc had two goals and one assist including 16 blocked shots and 26 hits. He also replaced Alexander Romanov in the first 2 games of the playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Per all of our expectations, Aho started on the bottom pairing on opening night against the Sabres. Despite losing the training camp battle for regular playing time, Bolduc still made the roster as the 7th defenseman. The Isles did not expect the 23-year-old to play right away but had no other choice as the injuries began to strike. In 33 games this season, Bolduc has been very disappointing with just one goal and a -5 rating. From the eye test, Bolduc continuously turned the puck over and struggled to clear the blue line, thus his 12:57 average ice time.

While Bolduc has struggled, he did improve as the season went on. There was a notable difference in his defensive approach in front of the net playing alongside a veteran in Bortuzzo. Unfortunately, Bolduc has not had an opportunity to build off his improvements given he has not appeared in a game since January 27th against the Panthers. The fact Bolduc was never waived shows Lamoriello still has confidence in his 2nd round draft pick from 2018. With just an $800K cap hit through next season, Bolduc is the most realistic option even if he makes the least sense as a pairing for Mayfield.

Sebastian Aho is a wild card.

As mentioned previously, Aho was the number one choice to earn regular playing time alongside Mayfield coming into this season. After an injury-plagued beginning to his young career, Aho finally played his first full season in the NHL in 2022-23. In 71 games, the 27-year-old defenseman scored an impressive 5 goals and 18 assists with 69 blocked shots and 38 hits. He became a regular on the Isles blue line, averaging 16:46 in ice time. Known as an offensive-minded defenseman, Aho recorded a plus-9 rating including appearing in all 6 Islanders playoff games.

However, Aho has not replicated the same production in 2023-24. After missing time with an upper-body injury, Aho has been rotated in and out of the lineup with Bortuzzo and Reilly. In 53 games played, the 27-year-old has just 2 goals and 7 assists. His defense playing on his offside has declined, rating a -9 when on the ice. 

On the other hand, Aho is a candidate to bounce back well in 2024-25 given he is still young and will not garner an expensive contract. While we can joke and say 'Lamoriello will offer him a 7-year contract' in reference to Pierre Engvall and Mayfield, Aho will realistically earn a one-year 'prove it's deal. His $825K cap hit for this season is a solid benchmark and figures to earn about the same next season. Given his contract expectation and experience with Mayfield, Aho is a wild-card candidate to return in 2024-25.