It is not a good sign when your star player is a no-show at the start of training camp, but that’s where the New York Islanders find themselves with Mathew Barzal.
Barzal is a restricted free agent, and he’s in the middle of a contract impasse with GM Lou Lamoriello.
Barzal is on the training camp roster, but he can’t compete in any scrimmages until he signs a contract.
This situation is not good for the Islanders or for Barzal. You only have to look back at what happened when a similar situation played out in Toronto a couple of years ago.
William Nylander missed two months of the 2019-20 season before agreeing to a contract for an average annual value of $10.2 million and $6.9 million from years two to six. It was likely an overpay on Toronto’s part. But apart from that, it didn’t help that Nylander sat out for so long.
When Nylander came back, he wasn’t the same player. He had trouble finding his rhythm and his timing and he suffered through a bad season, and this affected the team’s performance. Through 54 games, Nylander scored only seven goals that season.
It’s too early to say how Barzal’s contract impasse will affect him and the Islanders, but the longer this goes on, the worse it gets for both sides. There is only a week left before the start of the NHL season.
The 23-year-old center had 19 goals and 60 points in 68 games with the Islanders last season, adding five goals and 17 points in 22 games during the NHL’s Return to Play.
Perhaps Barzal wants a contract similar to what Toronto’s Mitch Marner got (six years at $10.8 million) when he was a restricted free agent. But it’s more likely that Barzal and the Islanders need to settle on a bridge deal. The landscape in Covid is so totally different with a flat salary cap going forward.
But Barzal’s absence didn’t seem to faze coach Barry Trotz, who said: “It’s nothing unusual for us if we’re missing a person here or there. That’s part of NHL hockey and the world today. We’re just going to worry about who we can put out on the ice and worry about what we can do within the next couple of days.”
There does seem to be room to work with to get under the cap. The Islanders are $3.9 million below the salary cap, with an extra $6 million of space to work with when Johnny Boychuk is placed on LTIR (Long-term Injury Reserve).
The most certain thing with the Islanders is their defensive pairings seem set with Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock, Nick Leddy-Scott Mayfield, and Andy Greene-Noah Dobson. But with the Devon Toews trade and Boychuk’s retirement, there is room for someone to step up and provide more depth on the back end. The best candidates seem to be Sebastian Aho, Grant Hutton, and Bode Wilde.
Among the forwards, Trotz likes what he’s seen so far of Dmytro Timashov, who came over from the Detroit Red Wings in a trade. Lamoriello was the Maple Leafs GM when Toronto drafted Timashov in 2015. Timashov is not a big player, but he’s a physically strong player. And he can play multiple positions.
Simon Holmstrom, who is back from the World Junior Championship, is still in quarantine, while Oliver Wahlstrom reported for duty after being recalled from loan overseas with AIK of the Allsvenskan league. The 20-year-old Wahlstrom registered eight points (4G, 4A) in 10 games skating in Sweden’s second-highest professional league.
Meanwhile, Cal Clutterbuck is coming off surgery when a skate cut his wrist in Boston on Dec. 19, 2019. He said he still doesn’t have any feeling in three of his fingers.
With a shortened training camp and no exhibition games, the Islanders must come together fast and plug some holes in the lineup. But Trotz isn’t worried at this point about where the goals will come from. He’s more concerned with wins.
“We’re going to go three days working on fundamentals,” the coach said. “I wouldn’t read too much into the lines right now. You have to have a really good foundation right now. There isn’t going to be a lot of practice tie. You’re probably going to have four or five games in a week. Rest is going to be a bit of a weapon this year.”
The Islanders begin the 56-game season facing the New York Rangers on Jan. 14 and again two days later. The Islanders will play the Rangers eight times over the shortened season.
The first back-to-back is Feb. 15 and Feb. 16 in Buffalo. The season concludes May 8 against the New Jersey Devils.
The Islanders are in the newly aligned East Division with Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, the Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.
Although the Islanders were the surprise of the NHL last season, getting all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1993, they are not the favorites in their division. The Bruins and the Capitals are likely going to battle it out to win the division.