The summer of 2020 will be an interesting one for the New York Islanders as the team will work to lock up three key restricted free agents (RFA) prior to July 1. Ticketed for raises will be dynamic center Mathew Barzal, along with emerging top four defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews. So what will these three players next contracts look like and what will it mean to the Islanders roster composition moving forward.
According to CapFriendly, the Islanders will enter 2020-21 with 16 players under contract with a projected cap space of $15,410,000. That number includes the following contracts coming off the books, Matt Martin, Thomas Griess, Derick Brassard and Tom Kuhnhackl. Of those players, Martin and Kuhnhackl would most likely be re-signed in the $1 million range each. That would leave $13.41 million to lock up three important pieces while opening up roster spots for players on an entry-level or a value contract. Those limited dollars will in all likelihood leave the Islanders as bystanders when free agency opens on July 1.
Barzal’s Next Contract
Taking a look at some of the contracts doled out to RFAs prior to the start of the 2019 season gives some indication on what kind of term and dollar amount that Barzal could command as an elite level forward with a Calder trophy win and an 80-point-plus season under his belt.
While Mitch Marner’s six-year, $65.3-million deal seems steep for Barzal, a contract landing somewhere in between Mikko Rantanen’s six-year, $55.5-million and Sebastian Aho’s five-year, $42.27 million seems right. That would be put Barzal’s annual average value somewhere between $8.4 million and $9.5 million. The Islanders should be prudent in re-signing Barzal, and in all likelihood will try to ink the young forward to a six or seven-year contract. What the Islanders will want to avoid is a short term three year deal like Brock Boeser and Matthew Tkachuk signed, with an inflated third-year salary that would come with a qualifying offer of $10 million or better if the team wanted to extend the contract of those players for a single year before they could become unrestricted free agents.
When it comes to Pulock, he has proven himself to be capable of filling a variety of roles. Not only is he a top-pairing defender, but he is also a capable penalty killer and a weapon on the power play. He has demonstrated offensive upside and is able to drive play in the offensive zone. Odds are that he will be seeking a contract that will pay him in the same range as Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy, both on three-year deals at an average of $5 million each, with an inflated third-year salary. The Islanders may look to lock up Pulock to a five-year deal with an annual average salary in the $5.5-$6 million a season. That range would put Pulock on par with teammates Nicky Leddy and Johnny Boychuk.
If these salary projections prove accurate, that would leave the Islanders with no cap room to resign Toews, but there is an expectation that the NHL salary cap will rise $2 million to between $83.5 and $84.5 million for 2020-21.
Toews Contract an Interesting Case
Of the trio of RFAs, Toews is the most likely to receive a three-year contract offer with a back-loaded third-year salary. Toews’ contract will in all likelihood be three years at $7.5 million, with salaries in years one and two being $1.25 million and third year of $5 million. The cap hit would be reasonable $2.5 million over three years. This contract structure would give Toews a qualifying offer of better than $5 million if the Islanders chose to extend him an offer, while ensuring a substantial raise for Toews in his next contract, whether it is a one year deal or the basis for a multi-year deal.
The Islanders are going to have to make some hard decisions whenever the 2020 offseason begins for them. In order to gain cap flexibility the team may decide to part with Boychuk. His base salary drops from $6 million to $4 million, but it would give the team an additional $6 million in cap space. He would be an attractive piece for a team looking to gain cap dollars while not paying actual dollars. His modified no-trade clause would have to be worked around in such a scenario.
Expected new faces with the Islanders in 2020-21? The crystal ball suggests that Ilya Sorokin will slide into the goaltending picture to team up with Semyon Varlamov. Oliver Wahlstrom will earn a top-six forward role out of training camp and may even make his NHL debut during the 2019-20 season. Otto Koivula will make the team and will earn the minutes vacated by Brassard. All will be major contributors on value contracts.