The New York Islanders are expected to be buyers at the NHL’s Feb. 25 trade deadline as they improbably sit atop the Metropolitan Division.
How rare has this been for a franchise largely steeped in mediocrity over the past three decades? It’s just the third time since the 1989-90 campaign that the Islanders have led their division this late in a season.
Most of the credit will go to the changes atop the organization as new president Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz have brought structure and stability to a team that has lacked those fundamental aspects from leadership for quite some time.
What was last year’s worst defense in the NHL is now the best as Trotz has turned around his blue line while getting supreme production out of both his goalies in Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. In the meantime, the offense has been doing just enough to outscore their opponents, though one more dangerous offensive presence could catapult the Islanders from a nice little team to a serious Stanley Cup contender this season.
Who would have thought that would be the case after John Tavares bolted for the Toronto Maple Leafs back in July?
That puts supreme importance on the NHL trade deadline next month and on Monday night, a premier talent looks as though he’s just become available.
Aaron Portzline of the Athletic reported that Columbus Blue Jackets winger Artemi Panarin has declined to talk contract extension with his current club, meaning he will likely be traded within the next month.
“We have informed the team that we are willing to discuss Artemi’s future after the season,” Panarin’s agent, Dan Milstein, wrote on Twitter. “Our priority now is to focus on the rest of the season, trying to win a Stanley Cup for the CBJ & their fans.”
It’s a course of action the Blue Jackets likely can’t take or else they will risk losing Panarin for nothing after the season. The 27-year-old will become an unrestricted free agent on Jul. 1.
Panarin is in the midst of a career year with 19 goals and 34 assists (53 points) in 46 games. That kind of offensive production will be viewed as a premier kind of rental for contending teams during the home stretch.
With 33 games remaining the Islanders still have to hold off juggernauts like the Pittsburgh Penguins and defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals if they want to win their first division title since 1988. Should the team’s goaltending or defensive play dip, pressure is going to be heaped on an offense that is ranked ninth out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference.
Slotting Panarin in on the Islanders’ second line for a streaky player like Anthony Beauvillier suddenly creates a fearsome trio alongside Josh Bailey and Mathew Barzal. Behind the first line of Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle that has been clicking as of late, Panarin could make New York’s top six one of the best in the NHL.
The Islanders have more than enough assets, whether it’s prospects or draft picks, to pull off a trade with Panarin. They also have the cap space to outbid any team in free agency and re-sign him. However, it might be difficult for the Blue Jackets, who sit in fourth in the Metropolitan, to help out a divisional rival.