As the New York Islanders head into the 2023-24 season, don't expect them to be players in free agency, not unless they are able to free up cap space through trades or a buyout.
Per CapFriendly, the Islanders have $5,336,667 of projected cap space heading into next season; only five NHL teams have less. Topping the Islanders' list of salaries are forwards Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat, each starting new eight-year contracts with the team. Barzal's cap hit is $9.15M and Horvat is at $8.5M. Combined they make up 21.2% of the team's overall salary cap.
Anders Lee, the team's captain, has the third-highest salary at $7M AAV and has three years remaining on the seven-year contract extension he signed after the 2018-19 season.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
After announcing that Hudson Fasching had signed a two-year contract extension at $775K AAV, the Islanders have four unrestricted free agents (UFAs) remaining that made significant contributions to the team last season. The list includes defenseman Scott Mayfield, backup goaltender Semyon Varlamov, 38-year-old forward Zach Parise, and trade deadline acquisition Pierre Engvall.
The 30-year-old Mayfield is entering free-agency for the first time and could have multiple suitors given his 6'5 size and playoff experience. "My mind is still the same as what it's been. I love it here, my wife loves it here, Mayfield said at clean out day. "We have our house, not too far from the rink, it's a great setup. My mindset is the same. This is where I want to be and we'll see what happens."
Parise has stated that it's either Islanders or nowhere for him after scoring 21 goals in his 18th season and playing all 82 games for the second straight year with the Islanders. If Parise's coming back, the only way it works is at the league minimum for the third straight season, though his play has exceeded that amount. His buyout from the Minnesota Wild keeps that a likely option.
Meanwhile, Varlamov could be the most interesting situation. The role of the 35-year-old has diminished significantly over the last two seasons with the emergence of Ilya Sorokin as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. Yet, Varlamov seems comfortable with that role moving and comfortable on Long Island.
"I want to stay with the team," Varlamov said. "Nothing has changed... I have a good feeling about this team and about the future. I want to be a part of it." To stay, Varlamov will need to take a significant pay cut to remain on the team given the team's cap status.
And there's Pierre Engvall. The slender forward showcased speed and play-making ability after being acquired for a 2024 third-round pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He's a player Lou Lamoriello was previously familiar with, and the GM has liked to extend players acquired via trade in recent seasons. There's definitely a case for how Engvall rounds out the top nine, but he may be looking to use his impressive stint with the Islanders to generate interest and earn a multi-year deal elsewhere.
CREATING CAP SPACE
If the Islanders are unable or unwilling to move on from some of their more expensive contracts that would be attractive in the trade market, such as JG Pageau or Kyle Palmieri (both with modified NTCs), then they are limited as to how they can create more cap space to back the aforementioned players or look to improve the roster with a depth forward or puck-moving defenseman to take Mayfield's spot in the top six on the blue line.
However, one option remains the potential buyout of Josh Bailey. The longest-tenured Islander acknowledged the uncertainty in his future at the end of the season after being a healthy scratch for all six games against the Carolina Hurricanes. A buy-out of the final year of his contract, which carries a $5M AAV, seems likely at this point and would give the team $2.33M in extra cap space for next season while carrying 1.66M against that number in 2024-25.
In addition to Bailey, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin are both entering the final year of their contracts along with D Sebastian Aho. As the Islanders look to extend Ilya Sorokin long-term, they'll have minimal money coming off the books for the 2024-25 season, but the salary cap is finally expected to rise significantly, which should give them enough flexibility to work out a deal with their All-Star goaltender and turnover parts of their forward group with younger, players on inexpensive contracts. Brock Nelson (6M AAV) and Palmieri (5M AAV) are free agents after the 2024-25 season.