If you asked pundits ahead of the campaign, the New York Islanders were supposed to be a lot of things this season. They were supposed to be a lottery contender. They were supposed to be a team on the rebuild. And if we were looking ahead — way, way ahead — to the trade deadline during the pre-season, the Islanders were supposed to be a seller.
Yeah, so, about that…
As we enter into the final days before the NHL’s trade freeze, New York doesn’t find itself anywhere near the basement, and we’d be hesitant, to say the least, about calling the Islanders a seller. That’s especially true given New York finds itself in a position few, even the most hopeful among the Islanders’ faithful, could have imagined, sitting three points clear of the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals and in first place in the Metropolitan Division with games, plural, in hand. As the deadline draws near, the Islanders have won 12 of their past 16 games and are one of the hottest teams in the league over the past several weeks. In fact, only the St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes have accumulated more points since the turn of the calendar. The result is that the Islanders have slowly but surely moved from feel-good story to respectable Eastern Conference contender.
But where exactly does that leave New York with the deadline approaching?
There has been the suggestion that the Islanders, despite their success, could sell at the deadline. That mentality, however, is difficult to buy into. Yes, New York has seven — count ‘em, seven — pending unrestricted free agents on their NHL roster, but the fact of the matter is that the Islanders hardly seem in a position to move any of those players out. And even if you were to consider such a sale of talent, the seven free agents-to-be would almost certainly have to fall into a few tiers.
First, the ‘No Chance’ tier would include captain Anders Lee, goaltender Robin Lehner and depth center Valtteri Filppula. When it comes to Lee, who tops the team with 19 goals, ranks third with 39 points and sits third in ice time among the forward corps, moving him would be absolutely foolish, and his performance this season in addition to the team’s willingness to slap the ‘C’ on his jersey ahead of the campaign would point in the direction of the team doing whatever necessary to retain him beyond this season. There’s also no way the Islanders would even flirt with the idea of trading Lehner, whose goaltending, along with that of Thomas Greiss, has been the backbone of New York’s success this season. As for Filppula, the return would likely be limited and he offers a good third-line depth option that would be hard to find elsewhere.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, in the ‘Sell ‘Em’ tier, is Luca Sbisa and Luca Sbisa alone. Signed in the off-season to offer defensive depth, he has skated in only nine games and has spent the majority of the campaign keeping a seat warm in the press box. If there’s a team with interest, the Islanders have other options available who can enter the lineup and skate a dozen minutes in a pinch.
That does, however, leave two players, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle in a ‘Maybe’ middleground. The suggestion that the Islanders could move either comes with a sizeable caveat, though, so don’t go grabbing the pitchforks and lighting the torches just yet.
The only way New York should be even tempted to move one of the two forwards is if it’s as part of a package for one of the top talents on the market. We know, for example, the Columbus Blue Jackets will consider moving pending UFA Artemi Panarin and that he has reported interest in playing on the East Coast. If Nelson or Eberle has to go for the Islanders to land Panarin — and subsequently earn the first shot at inking the star winger long term — is there any reason to hesitate? Panarin is a legitimate first-line talent on any team in the NHL, and Nelson or Eberle might make sense as part of a return if Columbus wants to acquire a useful replacement in the immediate. Beyond acquiring Panarin, though, New York could potentially include one of Nelson or Eberle in a package for Mark Stone or Matt Duchene, though Ottawa may be more interested in landing a controllable asset than one on an expiring contract.
Regardless, it’s in landing a player such as Panarin, Stone or Duchene that the Islanders would have to consider moving Nelson or Eberle, as any of the three top-tier forwards available at the deadline would represent an upgrade up front. Anything else might constitute nothing more than a lateral move.
It’s not just the stable of pending UFAs that makes the Islanders intriguing with the deadline on the horizon, though. The rapid rise and New York’s standing atop the division might result in a changing mentality about what this deadline should look like from a buyers perspective. Prior to this almost-instantaneous success in the post-John Tavares era, the expectation surrounding the Islanders was that they would build from within around reigning Calder Trophy winner Mat Barzal. Now, though, there may be some who want to speed the process along and would be willing to deal picks and key prospects to insert top talents into the lineup without selling off any current roster players.
That said, chances are any move involving any of few ‘A’ grade prospects in the coffers — think Kieffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom, Noah Dobson — or top draft choices would be incredibly misguided. Single-season success can be fleeting, and as impressive as the Islanders have been, they should still be looking to build for the future, especially as they currently have one of the older rosters in the league. That’s not to say no prospects can be included, and there are two players in particular, Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle, who feel as though they could be deadline fodder if New York is seeking to add.
Neither Ho-Sang or Dal Colle has been all that exceptional in their turns in the NHL. Admittedly, Dal Colle has only seen 20 games and played primarily on the fourth line, but his two goals and four points after years spent in the minors hasn’t been too inspiring. And when it comes to the former, Ho-Sang, it seems as though a split could be mutually beneficial to both he and the organization. He’s had more success with the big club, but it seems only a matter of time before he’s moved along.
No matter how the Islanders go about acquiring some additional talent, though, it seems inevitable that they’ll do an about-face, becoming buyers despite the pre-season perception that this team was destined to sell come the deadline.