The New York Islanders have made the biggest move of the season, acquiring All-Star center Bo Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks to immediately upgrade their top six. The move is a risky one, especially since the Islanders are currently out of playoff position and could not only miss the playoffs but possibly lose Horvat at the end of the season. However, they made an aggressive and necessary move to bolster their win-now roster.
The Horvat addition also reflects Islanders general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello‘s philosophy for building a team. He is a tough GM to figure out, often keeping information private and operating at his own speed, which includes signing free agents late in the offseason. However, he’s also shown a willingness to pounce on an opportunity to acquire talented players and take advantage of the best offer available, whenever it might be. The trade deadline is weeks away, but Horvat was available for a reasonable return and acquired as a result.
Granted, Lamoriello’s tendencies can also backfire. He doesn’t typically make a splash in free agency. It’s how the Islanders came up short in the Artemi Panarin sweepstakes in 2019 and how they missed out on star forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Nazem Kadri in 2022. Lamoriello rewards loyalty and usually signals confidence in the roster in place, which makes for a strong veteran presence, but also an aging core. However, when he makes a move, it often upgrades the roster significantly at the time and for the future, making him one of the most respected executives in the NHL.
Lamoriello’s Devils Years
Lamoriello’s tenure with the New Jersey Devils was his most successful as a GM. Aside from having the job for 28 years, he turned the team into an Eastern Conference juggernaut and built five Stanley Cup Final rosters, including three title winners. Most of the talent the Devils brought in was homegrown, but the big acquisition he made was the Ilya Kovalchuk trade. Lamoriello saw an opportunity to add an elite player from a tumultuous Atlanta Thrashers team and pounced on it.
The trade required the Devils to give up a few assets, including defenseman Johnny Oduya, two prospects, and a 2010 first-round pick. However, Kovalchuk added star power to a forward unit with an already strong defense and elite goaltending led by future Hall-of-Famer Martin Brodeur. The move parallels the Horvat deal recently from an on-ice perspective and that it was also done weeks before the trade deadline. The Devils made the trade on Feb. 4, when the best offer was available from the Thrashers and one that Lamoriello couldn’t refuse.
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Kovalchuk’s presence was pivotal to the Devils’ success. He led the team in goals in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and he scored 89 goals and 112 assists in four seasons with the club. Additionally, Kovalchuk’s team-leading eight goals and 11 assists in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs helped the Devils reach the Stanley Cup Final where they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games. Defenseman Scott Stevens was the most impactful addition in Lamoriello’s tenure; he was a compensation addition. The trade for a star scorer, meanwhile, was one where he took advantage of a prime opportunity.
The Pageau Trade
When Lamoriello took the job of Islanders GM, he didn’t make any big moves in his first season nor the 2018 or 2019 offseasons. Instead, his first big move came on Feb. 24 ahead of the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. With the Ottawa Senators heading into a rebuild, he saw an opportunity to acquire center Jean-Gabriel Pageau. The Islanders had to give up three draft picks to acquire Pageau, who was a rental, but the move paid off tenfold, especially since Lamoriello extended him for six years shortly after the trade.
Since being acquired, Pageau has been an integral part of the roster. He centers the third line adds scoring depth to the offense, with 44 goals and 52 assists in the last four seasons. He controls the center of the ice while playing a big role defensively, and with 4.4 defensive point shares, he’s been one of the best defensive forwards on the team. With Pageau, a two-way center in the middle of the forward unit, the Islanders had one of the deepest rosters in the league and reached the Stanley Cup Semifinal in 2020 and 2021.
Palmieri & Zajac
The other big splash Lamoriello made with the Islanders involved his former team. He acquired both Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils in April 2021 to help the Devils’ playoff push. Both players were rental additions, and Zajac wasn’t re-signed after the season. He struggled to find a role, scoring only one goal and one assist that season, and one goal and an assist in the playoffs, making him a healthy scratch often. Palmieri, meanwhile, became a valuable part of the roster during their playoff run and the next few seasons.
In New York, Palmieri has added a shooting presence on the wing, helping to open up the offense. His seven goals were tied with Brock Nelson for the most on the team during the 2021 Playoffs, which pushed the Tampa Bay Lightning to the brink in a seven-game series. That offseason, Lamoriello re-signed Palmieri to a four-year deal, and he has been a reliable scorer since.
Where Lamoriello’s Style Succeeds & Fails
Lamoriello operates at his unique speed and is willing to wait for the best offer, which has resulted in a few impactful moves. More importantly, it has prevented him from making bad decisions. Granted, trading defensemen Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche and Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings backfired, as losing both weakened the defense’s puck handling. However, rarely does Lamoriello make a regrettable addition.
At the same time, his lack of aggressiveness can often cost the Islanders. Aside from acquiring Alexander Romanov during the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, he hasn’t upgraded the roster in the offseason. The confidence has also resulted in minimal turnover from one season to the next, which has both hurt and helped the team.
Lamoriello’s style has led to successful organizations but ones that eventually fell apart with aging rosters. The Islanders are entering that phase, with many key players in the twilight of their careers. There is more pressure on the Horvat deal to work out, not only to save the Islanders’ season but keep their window open. Lamoriello is betting on himself, and this could be his final act, one that leaves a lasting impression of his legacy.
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Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large, looking at general topics from potential cities for NHL relocation to arena traditions throughout the league. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.