The offseason for the Islanders is going to be a tough one no matter what. Add in having the possibility of having to replace Casey Cizikas, and it feels ten times harder.
You would think replacing a fourth-line center in today’s NHL would be considered one of the easiest things for a general manager. But, a lot of them aren’t Cizikas. And a lot of them aren’t nearly as valuable to the Islanders as he is.
“There’s no question what Casey Cizikas has brought to the team. We will do everything we possibly can to try and have him come back,” Lamoriello said last week. “Certainly, his set of circumstances is unique and also maybe positive because he’s a UFA (unrestricted free agent) and we do not have to make any decisions with (respect to the expansion draft). We will continue to talk with him.”
For a decade now, the 30-year-old Cizikas has evolved into one of the most important pieces the organization has had in the post-dynasty era. He’s been an instrumental part of the team’s success as one-third of the Isles’ “Identity Line”, along with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, but that run could be coming to an end.
Cizikas is set to hit the open market on July 28th, meaning there’s a chance he could be playing in another sweater for next season. It’s the second time the forward has a chance to cash in. The first came in 2016 after he had just come off a career-high 29 points and concluded a two-year bridge deal which was paying him only $1M AAV.
Back then, former g.m. Garth Snow felt that Cizikas was a critical part of the team’s future and awarded him with a five-year deal worth $16.75M. Many people thought then that deal was ludicrous, especially for a fourth-liner. Looking at it now, it turned out to be one of the best contracts the Islanders handed out.
The Islanders have said they will do everything they can to avoid Cizikas moving on. But if he does depart, trying to replicate Cizikas’ presence won’t come easy for Islanders’ g.m. Lou Lamoriello.
The Islanders are a sum of all their parts and their success derives from when their players all play to their specific roles. Cizikas is without question one of the larger ones. During his tenure, “Zeeker” has become everything for the Isles. He has widely been considered the team’s hardest-working player, as there doesn’t seem to be anything he’s not capable of doing.
You want a guy to forecheck? Throw the body? Block shots? Penalty kill? It’s Cizikas.
There aren’t many guys who are a “throwback” as Barry Trotz likes to say, but he describes Cizikas as one of them. The veteran center doesn’t have a letter on his jersey, which is still somewhat surprising based on his play and his undersold leadership. There are definitely clubs that could use both those elements. The Maple Leafs, Rangers, maybe even the Penguins all come to mind.
But from an Islander perspective, things get tricky to fill Cizikas’ spot. They can try to bring back Travis Zajac on the cheap for another year after dealing for him at this year’s deadline. Zajac is notorious for doing a lot of the things Cizikas does (faceoffs, penalty kill). Problem is he is 36 years of age. Sooner or later the Islanders have to get younger and still be able to field a championship-caliber squad. Now that youth injection could be come from Otto Koivula.
The 22-year-old has played a few games with the big club the past few seasons but hasn’t been able to secure a regular role. Koivula is a center and does have size — he stands at 6’5, 223 pounds — but is he ready to play the demanding, physical style that Cizikas does and that Trotz employs?
Beyond them, it’s hard to see a Cole Bardreau or Felix Bibeau making the leap to starter.
Because of the Isles’ cap situation is such a tight squeeze, going the free agent route might be hard to navigate as well. The list of possible names in this year’s class might ask for more than Lamoriello is willing to pay. Also something to take of note, Lamoriello goes for players he feel would fit both the Isles’ style of play and their locker room.
“I think I know where his heart is and I think the team would love to have him back as well,” Martin said of Cizikas during the team’s exit interviews. “These things get tricky. There’s a salary cap, a bunch of things going on… at the end of the day, I hope we have another opportunity with this group of guys.”
The Isles can take a thing or two from Martin when it comes to the Cizikas situation. When Martin left for Toronto in free agency five years ago, they felt his absence in several ways the following season, physically and from a character standpoint. Does the name Jason Chimera ring a bell? He was brought in to replace Martin and it failed miserably. The Isles ended up missing the postseason for the first time in two years. So, if there’s anything to be taken from that situation, the Islanders this will hopefully not make the same mistake this time around.
The situation with Cizikas has its own uniqueness to it.
Who he is and what he brings to the table won’t be easy to substitute in any fashion.