Can Lou Lamoriello pull it off?
There was no way the New York Islanders could survive the 2020 off-season unscathed. Top center Mathew Barzal, top defenseman Ryan Pulock and key puck-moving blueliner Devon Toews were RFAs and, thanks the flat salary cap of $81.5 million, the Isles couldn’t afford to re-sign even two of them, let alone all three. Whether Barzal was going to settle for a mid-term deal or a max-term deal, it was always going to cost a significant investment to lock him up: maybe Jack Eichel money at a $10-million AAV in a pre-COVID world and at least $8 million annually in a flat-cap world.
So GM Lou Lamoriello couldn’t keep all his RFAs. He punted Toews to the Colorado Avalanche for second-round picks in 2021 and 2022. That left Barzal and Pulock as the priority RFAs.
Now Pulock’s deal is done. He inked a two-year bridge deal at a $5-million AAV Wednesday. For Pulock: it’s fantastic. He gets a significant raise and will be a 28-year-old UFA when it finishes. He’ll likely hit the open market at his peak value.
From the Isles’ standpoint, the contract has pros and cons. For the next two years, Pulock will be a bargain at his $5-million cap hit. He grades out as a legitimate top-pair defenseman at 5-on-5. In coach Barry Trotz’s bend-but-don’t-break scheme, his players tend to allow far more shot attempts than they generate, and that has been the case for Pulock in the past two seasons, but he’s the poster boy for what the Isles do to opponents. During the 2019-20 post-season, he ranked near the top of the league in shots blocked per 60 minutes. He’s also a strong offensive play driver relative to his teammates and makes an above-average impact in goal creation, though, as statistician Sean Tierney reports, Pulock’s impact on the power play hasn’t been great. That’s odd considering he has one of the league’s most devastatingly powerful shots.
So the while Isles are kicking the can down the road and will have to pay a lot more to keep Pulock in two years, they scored a good price for their best blueliner in the short term. They also get him under the cap at a number reasonable enough to make headway in figuring out the Barzal contract. At the moment, they still only have $3.9 million in cap space. In no scenario is that enough to re-sign Barzal. But another buyout window will open up for the Islanders in two days. It can only be used on players with cap hits of $4 million or more. The Isles receive the opportunity because they had more than one player file for arbitration.
But would any buyout move the needle? The natural pick would be left winger Andrew Ladd or defenseman Johnny Boychuk, but they don’t actually provide that much cap relief if bought out: just $666,667 and $833,333, respectively, according to capfriendly.com – and even less than those dollar figures considering someone would have to replace the bought-out player on the roster. The only way to free up a major chunk of change with a buyout would be to aim the crosshairs at a still-useful veteran such as Jordan Eberle, which wouldn't make much sense.
So, based on the math, the work is nowhere near done if Lamoriello wants to get Barzal signed soon. It’s possible Lamoriello can recapture his ‘Robidas Island’ LTIR magic and nudge Ladd into that designation for the year, but Ladd played in the 2020 playoffs, so how hurt is he? If the Islanders can’t find a player to live on Robidas Island, they’ll have make a trade to make room for Barzal. And if that means subtracting a core member after already losing Toews, it’ll be difficult to call the 2020 off-season a win, even for a mastermind like Lamoriello.