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Isles Stand Pat at the Draft: Doug Houda Let Go; Martin/Clutterbuck Next?

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New York Islanders Center Casey Cizikas (53) and New York Islanders Right Wing Cal Clutterbuck (15) congratulate New York Islanders Left Wing Matt Martin (17) for scoring a goal during the third period of the National Hockey League game between the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders on March 4, 2021, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale.
Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck celebrate a goal // Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire

The 2024 NHL Entry Draft is officially over. The New York Islanders entered the draft with three picks inside the first two rounds, including the 20th overall. They needed to create cap space without totally mortgaging the future.

The Islanders have drafted six new players and haven’t touched their NHL roster. Cole Eiserman headlines the rookie class for the Islanders, and if he pans out, he could become a perennial 35+ goal scorer.

However, as great as that is, it fails to address any issues plaguing the Islanders. They’re still, at best, a fringe playoff team that cycles between being hot and cold so fast it’ll give you whiplash.

Islanders UFAs and RFAs

Without the draft picks as assets, it’s become harder to see how the Islanders can work to create the requisite cap space to improve the team. Now, the team has a touch under $6 million to re-sign RFAs Simon Holmstrom*, Ruslan Iskhakov, Oliver Wahlstrom, and Dennis Cholowski (* = not eligible for arbitration). The unsigned UFAs are Mike Reilly, Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, and Robert Bortuzzo.

That’s obviously not enough money for all of those players. At this point, it’s very possible that none of the UFAs will return, except for Reilly. The RFAs must receive Qualifying Offers tomorrow by 5 p.m. to remain the Islanders’ property; otherwise, they’ll become UFAs. Lamoriello told reporters after the draft that the team would qualify Wahlstrom but was clear about saying that the team is open to giving him a fresh start.

Goodbye, Martin and Clutterbuck?

According to Andrew Gross of Newsday, Lou also made it sound like Martin and Clutterbuck are on their way out of the organization through free agency. It would mark the first season without at least one of the two since the 2008-09 season when Josh Bailey was a rookie, and players like Doug Weight and Bill Guerin finished in the top five in points for the team.

If both do, in fact,  leave the organization, it shows more commitment than ever to evolving the roster, even if a trade hasn’t yet been reached.

Doug Houda Fired

Another change was also announced during Lamoriello’s briefing when he announced that assistant coach Doug Houda would not return. Honda coached the defense for the last two seasons and arrived after Lambert’s promotion to head coach. Lamoriello said a replacement would be announced soon.

Free Agency on the Horizon

There’s less than 48 hours until noon on Monday, which is when the chaos begins. Currently, the Islanders will be relegated to the sidelines, and they cannot address their needs in the top six due to cap constraints.

It’s not a viable path forward. Since the season ended, the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils have made moves to improve. The Philadelphia Flyers proved this year that with a Hall of Fame coaching them, they can’t ever be counted out. Oh, and the Pittsburgh Penguins? Yeah, I’d struggle to ever declare a team out of it, when they have Sidney Crosby on their squad.

Maxim Tsyplakov may end up being a success for the Islanders. But making him the only marquee addition to the roster when it’s clear the team needs a facelift? It’s not enough. Lamoriello did make it clear that unlike the Anatoli Golyshev and Jan Kovar signings of yesteryear, Tsyplakov is an NHL player, saying the team didn’t sign him to play in Bridgeport.

However, under Patrick Roy, the team played at a 100-point pace, even with Ilya Sorokin being almost unusable at the end of the year. Sorokin will be better next year despite his dip in form this past season.

Reasons for Optimism and Negativity

There are undeniably pieces here that you can win with. Mat Barzal would make any Canadian best-on-best roster. Sorokin is a top-three goalie in the NHL at his peak. Noah Dobson finished eighth in Norris voting this year, and had he not stumbled at the end of the season, he might’ve cracked the top five.

There just needs to be a bit more punch within the lineup. Maybe it comes from within. It’s possible—not likely—that a player like Matt Maggio or William Dufour will take another big step forward. Both players have incredible drives to improve their games and make a difference. Iskhakov could become a regular, and with his speed and skill, who knows what could happen?

Tsyplakov could also be a slam-dunk addition. Pierre Engvall shot a career-low 7.8%. There are certainly arguments that this Islanders team has more to give.

But that excludes the older players. Martin and Clutterbuck are departing. Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, however, are not. While Pulock had a strong year, Pelech had a rockier season but improved mightily once Roy took over. Can they maintain their status as rock-solid defensemen? Kyle Palmieri scored a career-high 30 goals- is that performance duplicable? Brock Nelson isn’t getting any younger; he turns 33 in October.

What comes out over the next 48 hours will define the next season for the Islanders. Can they afford a player like Anthony Duclair to strengthen their lineup further? Will there be any trades at all?

Or will the team continue to chum the waters, hoping to strike it big and dance their way into the playoffs, only to be smacked aside by a superior team?

Lou, and Lou alone, knows the answer to these questions.