FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Now that Bo Horvat is an Islander, the goal is to keep him an Islander.
Horvat and Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello both said Monday night after the trade with Vancouver was announced that the two sides had yet to discuss a contract extension. It had been reported the Canucks weren’t allowing teams to negotiate with Horvat’s camp, led by Newport Sports’ Patrick Morris, so that makes sense. Still, due in part to Lamoriello’s recent history of waiting to announce contracts until the details are finalized, there is some skepticism around the league that there were no talks at all before the trade was announced.
In any event, Lamoriello on Monday night sounded extremely confident about his ability to get something done. Asked about the strategy behind giving up two potentially major assets — top prospect Aatu Raty and a top-12 protected 2023 first-round draft pick — for a player currently under contract for just this season, he immediately rejected the premise of the question.
“I dispute that it’s a trade about just this year,” Lamoriello said. “It’s our intention to retain him certainly for more than this year. We don’t make these types of transactions without that in place, although it’s not in place. We feel comfortable we’ll work at getting that done.”
If that last sentence sounds weird, well, that’s because it is.
We noted earlier this season that the Islanders were set up well to do some spending this summer. Assuming they ink Horvat’s extension before July 1, that is now very much changed. It doesn’t help that the smart money is on the cap increasing by just $1 million, to $83.5 million, for next season as the players don’t look on pace to pay off escrow in time to precipitate a larger jump.
Horvat’s deal should end up in the $8 million per year range, for around seven years. SportsNet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Tuesday night that Vancouver’s initial offer over the summer was believed to be for just over $6 million annually. It will be interesting to see whether Mathew Barzal’s $9.15 million yearly compensation pushes Horvat’s number upward. After all, Horvat currently has 54 points to Barzal’s 43, and is likely to end up playing center — or at least taking faceoffs — on Barzal’s line.
For the sake of argument, though, we’ll project Horvat at $8 million per over seven years. Without making any other moves, that would put the Islanders’ bill for next season at $75.225 million, or $8.275 million under the cap, with 17 players signed out of 23 roster spots. They still would need to find the money to re-sign restricted free agents Oliver Wahlstrom, Parker Wotherspoon and Sam Bolduc, though the latter two could end up in the non-roster category. Among unrestricted free agents, Hudson Fasching, Scott Mayfield and Zach Parise (if he wants to keep playing) will need new deals, and Lamoriello will need to find a backup goalie, whether it’s Semyon Varlamov or somebody else.
The most optimistic reading of that from the Islanders’ perspective would be that Wahlstrom, coming off an injury that possibly has ended his season, will not be overly expensive on a bridge deal. It’s also at least possible — again, in an optimistic reading — that Mayfield would take a hometown discount and Parise again could sign for the minimum. Wotherspoon, Bolduc and Fasching figure to be relatively cheap, though letting Wotherspoon walk would make sense if the Isles bring back Mayfield and Wotherspoon can get guaranteed NHL playing time elsewhere.
Optimism aside, the Islanders may need to get a contract off their books during the offseason, especially because Horvat alone might not solve all the problems with their offense. The two obvious candidates would be Josh Bailey and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Neither of those would be easy decisions, though, especially for someone such as Lamoriello, who will place a high value on what Bailey has done for the organization over his 15-year career.
If the Islanders buy out Bailey’s contract, they would be on the hook for $2.66 million in 2023-24 and $1.16 million in 2024-25. The savings off a cap hit that currently runs them $5 million, then, would not be insignificant, and might be appealing given that Bailey has struggled this season with just 19 points in 48 games and a stint on the fourth line going into the All-Star break.
Still, Bailey has played more than 1,000 games in an Islanders uniform, and if he stays with the team through the end of his contract without major injury, he will easily pass Bryan Trottier’s franchise record for games played. Bailey is fourth in franchise history in assists and seventh in points. He’s also an assistant captain and part of a leadership group that is beloved in the locker room. There is a legitimate case that he should be the last player to wear No. 12 for the franchise. This is not as simple as offloading a player who is not performing.
As for Pageau, the Islanders now have five centers. They can only play four lines. For the rest of this season, the easy answer is to play Horvat and Barzal together on an overpowered top line. After that, with Horvat’s cap hit presumably much higher, it becomes much harder to justify keeping five. The Islanders aren’t trading Barzal, Horvat or Brock Nelson. Casey Cizikas is under contract until 2027, making him tougher to offload, and has a lower cap hit than Pageau does.
Pageau is under contract through 2026 at $5 million per year — the same number as Bailey — and can anchor a checking line on a playoff team. He can play both special teams units, and he’s one of the best faceoff guys in the league. Whether as a way of recouping some of the assets given up for Horvat or to add a winger in a hockey deal to balance out the roster, the Islanders can get value here.
Assuming they can extend Horvat, the Islanders are in a far better position than they were a week ago. That much is close to inarguable. Their offseason decision tree, though, is much more complex.
Horvat will become the 23rd player in Islanders history to wear No. 14 on his sweater, but only eight have done so for multiple seasons: Bob Bourne, Thomas Hickey, Brian Marchinko, Tom Fitzgerald, Chris Campoli, Trevor Gillies, Tom Kuhnackl and Derek Armstrong. The last player to wear No. 14 was William Dufour when he was called up just a couple weeks ago.
With apologies to Pageau, the Horvat deal is likely the biggest in-season acquisition the Islanders have made since Feb. 27, 2007. That was when Garth Snow sent Robert Nilsson, Ryan O’Marra and a first-round pick to Edmonton for Ryan Smyth, who had scored 31 times that season for the Oilers — the same number Horvat had for the Canucks this season. Smyth went on to play just 18 regular-season games on the Island with five goals and 10 assists, and the Isles went down in five games to the Sabres in the first round of the playoffs. He signed on July 1 of that year with the Avalanche.
Needless to say, Horvat should clear that bar.