Evaluating the NY Islanders' key offseason decisions at the midway point

Does Lou Lamoriello deserve credit or criticism for his 6th offseason as general manager?

2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7
2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages
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At the first-half mark of the season, the NY Islanders are tied for 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division at 19-12-10 (48 points). It’s hard to fathom this team has only played 41 games, given all the confusion, excitement, and heartbreak with every week that goes by. We see the Islanders beat tough opponents like the Toronto Maple Leafs and jump for joy, but in the same breath, we have seen them blow countless 3rd-period leads and call for Lane Lambert's job. 

To say the 2023-24 Islanders have been a rollercoaster ride is an understatement. Normally at the midway point, we can predict the outcome of a season. For instance, we can say definitively the Boston Bruins will make the playoffs and the Columbus Blue Jackets will have a losing record. The Islanders have seen the best of both worlds considering a slow start, a hot stretch at home, and a rough start to 2024. With 41 games officially in the books, how have the offseason decisions made by Lou Lamoriello impacted the team?

1. The free agent signings have been disappointing.

The Islanders began their offseason spending spree before the 2022-23 season had ended. They traded for and immediately extended Bo Horvat for eight years and $68 million at the trade deadline, eliminating a contract showdown on July 1st. The front office also allotted enough cap space to extend Ilya Sorokin for eight years, $66 million. However, these decisions also left little cap space to re-sign their own players or acquire new ones.

With limited financial flexibility, Lamoriello still found a way to re-sign Pierre Engvall and Scott Mayfield to 7-year contracts and Semyon Varlamov to a 4-year contract. The seven years given to Engvall and Mayfield were always questionable given their age and production. Engvall is a bottom-six forward on a good team who does not score many goals. While Mayfield is a lifelong Islander and Varlamov has contributed well, having them signed through ages 37 and 38 is not ideal either.

At the midway point, these decisions are already justifying fan concerns regarding these contracts. Engvall has been benched twice for turning the puck over in key moments and has not provided enough production playing on the second line with Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri. Mayfield has only played 26 games due to injury and is yet to register a goal. Varlamov has been terrific but is now on injury reserve with a lower-body injury. While it's still early in all of their respective contracts, Lamoriello's free-agent signings have not lived up to expectations.

2. Losing out on Alex DeBrincat hurt

Lamoriello had plenty of holes to fill entering the offseason. Aside from the unrestricted free agents, the Islanders farm system is bereft of young talent. The team has not had a 1st round draft pick since Simon Holmstrom in 2019 and the closest prospect to NHL-ready, Aatu Raty, was dealt to the Vancouver Canucks for Bo Horvat. Even though the Islanders retained all of their free agents and dealt Josh Bailey to the Chicago Blackhawks, the team was still the same, meaning they had not gotten better or worse from last season.

Once all four free agents were retained and Bailey’s contract was offloaded, the Islanders were still ‘cap-strapped’ with less than $2 million to spend. When scouring the trade market for a potential salary swap, Alex DeBrincat of the Ottawa Senators made the most sense. He was a restricted free agent that did not want to sign long-term with the Senators. DeBrincat would bring an elite shot to the Isles' top line with Mathew Barzal and Horvat. At 25-years-old, nobody could blame Lamoriello for being interested.

The Islanders ended up losing out on DeBrincat as he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings for a 1st and multiple second-round draft picks. The reason behind this trade was that the Isles just did not have the draft nor the prospect capital to complete a valuable package. The hypothetical trade scenario had J.G. Pageau being sent back to the Senators, but it wasn't enough to get the Sens to bite. It’s hard to fathom how the third line would look without Pageau given the Islanders' lack of center depth, however, Pageau has struggled mightily both on the penalty kill and on offense, while DeBrincat has 17 goals and 21 assists.

3. Sticking with Lane Lambert following the 2022-23 season.

The Islanders were very inconsistent in the 2022-23 season. The team started 15-8-0, then went into a January tailspin that saw them fall out of a playoff spot. However, the Islanders would prevail and finish the season 18-9-4 between February, March, and April. They finished strong without Barzal in the lineup and Horvat struggling through his first half-a-season on Long Island.

Some believed Lambert would be on the hot seat given questionable lineup decisions and starch contrasts in performance between himself and Barry Trotz. The team finished 31st in powerplay production and had periods of play that were just lackluster offensively. Lambert was searching for answers, even asking the likes of Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin to play on the top line with Barzal. It was decisions such as these that made fans question his leadership on the ice.

Lamoriello decided to stick with Lambert because the team never gave up on his message and has found a niche to bounce back even in the most furious of times. The Islanders demonstrated this poise in bouncing back from a west coast trip in November that saw the team blow 3 third-period leads in 4 games. We also saw the Isles start a winning streak following a third-period meltdown to the Sharks. This shows the players are committed to Lambert’s messaging, even if his decisions are not always the clearest.