It isn’t news anymore, but as we all know, the NHL’s salary cap is tied directly to the strength of the Canadian dollar. Back in January, Gary Bettman suggested that if the dollar got down to $0.80, the salary cap for the 2015-16 season would end up being somewhere around $71 million. This puts a lot of teams in a really sticky situation, since so many were banking on the cap continuing to rise.
The New York Islanders are not one of those teams.
The Islanders have completely turned themselves around after looking completely hopeless last season. They traded for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, then gave them both long term contract extensions, and signed Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, and Jaroslav Halak as free agents, making their fans forget about the first round draft pick they gave to Buffalo in exchange for a handful of games of Thomas Vanek.
The Islanders look like one of the better teams in the east this season and also have the cap space and prospects to continue to improve over the next couple of seasons. Let’s take a look.
Forwards under contract for the 2015-16 season
Defencemen under contract for the 2015-16 season
Heading into next season, the Islanders have a good chunk of their team intact for a pretty reasonable price. They have 11 forwards, 5 defencemen, and 1 goalie signed that will cost them a total of $55.5 million. So if the cap ends up where Bettman suggested it would, the Islanders will have roughly ~$16 million to flesh out and improve their roster. With that cap space, they also have a handful of key restricted free agents who will be looking for new contracts: Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Thomas Hickey.
Another quick thing to mention, this year is the final year of Alexei Yashin’s eight year, $2.204 million per year buyout, so next year will be the first year since 2001 that they aren’t paying him anything. Woohoo!
In my opinion, the Islanders’ have a fantastic window of opportunity right now. Things are finally clicking for a team that has worked its way through year after year of rebuilding, and is finally reaping the benefits of high draft picks. The biggest part of that window of success is franchise forward John Tavares. Tavares is putting up an MVP-type season, leading the way for the Islanders while only charging them a cap hit of $5.50 million. The Islanders have three more years left of this hilariously team friendly contract before Tavares becomes a UFA, and while I’m not saying he’s going to bolt to Toronto or anything, he’s probably going to command a lot more when they ink him to a new deal.
Cap hit vs point shares in 2014-15
Aside from Tavares, the Islanders have also been getting phenomenal value from a bunch of their players. Aside from really three outliers, the Islanders have received a great amount of production from players who aren’t payed very much. Just take a look at the graph above comparing Islanders’ players cap hits to their point shares this season. The three together in the top left are Grabovski, Kulemin, and Visnovsky who haven’t produced a high enough value this season to warrant their contracts, but aside from that, the Islanders are doing really well.
So, how can the Islanders improve their team? What’s working, and what isn’t? Who should stick around, and how much should they pay their free agents? Let’s start with their forwards.
Forward stats 2014-15
The Islanders have all of Tavares, Grabovski, Kulemin, Bailey, Okposo, Nielsen, Grabner, Clutterbuck, Strome, Martin, and Cizikas signed for next season, while Nelson and Lee are RFAs and Eric Boulton, Tyler Kennedy, and Colin McDonald are UFAs. When it’s all said and done, those 11 guys are making $33.01 million together next season, which gives the team a fair amount of space to work with.
Like I pointed out with the scatterplot above, the only real anchors for the Islanders this season have been Grabovski and Kulemin. Even then, I wouldn’t press the panic button on these two guys. These are contracts the team may look to move down the road if their cap situation gets a little tighter and the two of them don’t pick up their game, but as of right now, they aren’t hurting the team.
I don’t imagine the Islanders are in any rush whatsoever to sign Boulton to a new contract, considering he’s hardly played this season, but Colin McDonald and Tyler Kennedy have both proven to be solid depth options. Of the five free agents, obviously, Nelson and Lee are the most important ones and the Islanders certainly have the money to keep them around.
Defenceman stats 2014-15
The Islanders have the core of their blue line locked up well into the future since they inked both Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk to long term deals this year. Boychuk will make $6.0 million and Leddy will make $5.5 million per year over the next seven years. You can make the argument that Leddy and Boychuk are either overpaid, or they received too much term, but I think the Islanders made the right decision keeping them both around. Boychuk was set to become a UFA this summer and the market for free agent defencemen is incredibly thin. Outside of Jeff Petry, Mike Green, and Cody Franson, there isn’t much in terms of young, quality D available for teams looking to upgrade their blue lines. I imagine Boychuk could have commanded quite a bit more on the open market, so judging by the bargaining position they were in, Garth Snow did a good job.
Leddy and Boychuk have been huge to the Islanders’ success this season. The two of them have combined for 12.8 point shares this season, while dominating at even strength with the two highest goals for percentages on the team. When the two of them are on the ice, the Islanders are scoring way more goals than their opponents. With Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic also locked up for the next few seasons, the Islanders blue line is in really good shape.
The only question marks are Thomas Hickey and Lubomir Visnovsky. Hickey has proved to be a solid player, and like Nelson and Lee, is in need of a new contract as he’s set to become an RFA this summer. On the other hand, Visnovsky is getting older, and certainly wouldn’t be worth re-signing at his current $4.750 million cap hit. If they can get him on a cheap deal, go for it, if not, it’s pretty easy to say no with prospects like Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock knocking on the door.
As mentioned, the Islanders have roughly $16 million to work with and three key RFAs in need of new contracts this offseason. If they sign all three of those RFAs, they only need a few depth players and a backup goalie to flesh out their roster. While it seems like they have a lot of money to throw at these guys and possibly as UFA targets, they need to be careful. They’re in a really good position now because of a combination of sweetheart deals and not signing too many players to crippling contracts, so they don’t want to break that trend now. Looking a little further down the road, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen are going to become UFAs in 2016, and Calvin de Haan and Ryan Strome will need new contracts in 2017.
The Islanders have a really good thing brewing here and should look to capitalize on it now. That being said, they’ve already handed out a handful on long term deals in the past year, so they don’t want to cripple themselves with too many more. Signing their RFAs shouldn’t cost any more than $8 million, leaving them with another $8 to take them to the cap ceiling. Signing some veteran players to one or two year deals could go a long way in helping their team succeed in the short term, without hurting their long term flexibility.