The quick re-birth of the New York Islanders’ playoff hopes seemingly came out of nowhere in 2018-19. John Tavares’ departure left nearly all fans and analysts around the league pegging the Islanders to finish bottom-five, at the very minimum, in the league.
Yet still, head coach Barry Trotz was able to implement his system swiftly to propel the Islanders to their second semifinal berth since 1993.
Not all good things can remain, though. The team has a number of key unrestricted free agents coming up this season, including captain Anders Lee, Vezina and Masterson finalist Robin Lehner, and Jordan Eberle. Brock Nelson was also a part of this list prior to being re-signed to a six-year, $36 million extension.
In an ideal world, the Islanders would like to bring all of these players back. Lee is instrumental both on the ice and off. Lehner had a career season and fit in perfectly on Long Island and with goaltending gurus Piero Greco and Mitch Korn. Eberle proved that he can handle the load of the playoffs after a spectacular series against Pittsburgh – something those in Edmonton believed he could not do.
But, with an impending large dollar sign looming, it may not be wise for the Islanders to bring back everyone. Lee and Lehner are, at the moment, priority number one and rightfully so. That, unfortunately for the franchise, leaves Jordan Eberle as the odd man out.
In his two seasons on Long Island since being acquired for Ryan Strome, Eberle has been mostly fantastic in his role. Over time, he found a role primarily next to Mathew Barzal in the top-six and was used as a pivot-piece on the sidewall on the second powerplay.
In 159 games, Eberle had 96 points, and he is over point-per-game in the playoffs in that time.
Although he is due for the same price or a slight downgrade from his current $6 million per season, it still may not be enough for general manager Lou Lamoriello to keep him around. In a vaccuum, they would, but it does not seem like the correct time or place for the Islanders to do so – but things could change.
The team has a number of young players ready to arise through the system. Kieffer Bellows can use his blazing speed and killer offensive instincts to make an immediate difference in this upcoming season or the one next. Oliver Wahlstrom, the 11th overall pick in 2018, will be coming through the ranks soon, but he needs more seasoning. Arnaud Durandeau, who was signed on the last day eligible before re-entering the draft this season, and Otto Koivula equally look like intriguing options moving forward, and both players can play the middle and the wing each.
Michael Dal Colle, the fifth overall pick in 2014, finally saw time in the NHL last season and made the most of it when playing. Despite a lack of footspeed compared to his peers, he seemed mostly in place and is finally making good on his path to the NHL. He will never be the elite scorer that he was once promised to be, but a middle-six NHL regular is certainly not out of the cards.
Josh Ho-Sang is still around, but his time in the organization is running thin. He could definitely make it next season, but it would not come as a shock if he was moved. He deserves a chance to play somewhere. Perhaps a team in need of youth and with an influx of roster opportunities, such as Detroit or Chicago, would take a shout.
Regardless of who comes up and who stays down, it is hard to see a logical reason to bring Eberle back for $5.5 million per year or more. Leo Komarov and Andrew Ladd, whether fans like it or not, are still members of the team for the next few years. Unless a compliance buyout comes around due to a lockout in 2020 or from the Seattle expansion draft, it is difficult to see either of those contracts moving.
Thus, for the long-term cap relief of the team, it may be best to see Eberle walk to greener pastures. It will certainly hurt the team for the time being, but with the influx of talent coming up, it will hopefully be an easy transition.