If you were hoping for some clarity as to whether Islanders forward Zach Parise would return to the team for the 2023-24 season, general manager Lou Lamoriello offered some on Monday when he held what was otherwise an unremarkable 20-minute press conference.
Parise won’t be attending Islanders training camp, which means that he almost certainly won’t be in the lineup on opening night when the team hosts the Buffalo Sabres at UBS Arena. While retirement for the 39-year-old forward is a possibility, if not a likelihood, Lamoriello left the door open for him to return at some point down the line.
“Zach Parise will not be here (for training camp),” Lamoriello said. “Zach will be with his family. We’ll see how the rest of the season goes.”
Lamoriello, who drafted Parise No. 17 in 2003 when he was still running the Devils, continued: “The door is always open. I think everybody knows the relationship that I have with Zach since he was 17 years old. … When you have a player like that who loves the game and had the success he had and what he did for the team, it’s a tough thing for him to make that decision. You allow it to go as long as you possibly can without pressing or asking. I think he made the right decision for his family, and we’ll just keep the door open for him.”
Andres Lee, at the NHL player tour in Las Vegas, was asked if he was surprised that Parise wouldn’t be back right away after his strong 2022-23 season. Parise’s family has remained in Minnesota during the forward’s two seasons on Long Island.
“I wouldn’t say surprised,” Lee said. “I think for him, he’s working through everything. It’s tough on your family, being away from them for a season. It’s not easy. He’s got kids in school and starting to play sports and all that stuff. … We would love to have him, but I know it’s his right to take his time on this and make his decision. Whatever it is, we’re all there for him. He’s had a phenomenal career.”
There were already some signs that Parise might not be back. The Islanders retained forward Pierre Engvall, a free agent, with a seven-year, $21 million contract on July 1. They added 25-year-old forward Julian Gauthier on a two-year, $1.575 contract on July 5. Oliver Wahlstrom, the subject of some trade speculation, is still around on a cheap one-year extension.
Salary cap space is at a premium, too. In fact, CapFriendly has the Islanders at about a half a million dollars over the cap at the moment — a number that includes the salaries of Gauthier ($787k), Karson Kuhlman ($775k) and Ross Johnston ($1.1 million), but not Wahlstrom ($874k) or Simon Holmstrom ($836k). While a new Parise contract would almost certainly have been a league minimum deal again, it still might have been difficult for them to stay cap-compliant.
Still, for a team that’s already thin when it comes to depth on the wings, Parise’s absence could be felt. He was still third on the team in goals last season with 21 (not counting Bo Horvat’s time in Vancouver), averaged a little more than 16 minutes per game, was second only to Casey Cizikas in shorthanded ice time among forwards, and was durable, playing in all 82 games. Off the ice, Parise is a respected veteran in the dressing room on a team that values its culture.
Replacing him might not be so simple. But, as Lamoriello added on Monday: “That’s hockey. You never know who will come forward.”
There are the players that Islanders fans already know, like Wahlstrom, coming off of a serious knee injury, and Holmstrom, a rookie who made a decent account of himself last season but didn’t do much offensively (and who is also waivers exempt, meaning he could start the season in Bridgeport). One or both of those players might have to emerge for the Islanders to produce sustained offense.
But there are others who will get a chance to impress in camp. Here are a few new, or lesser-known candidates that could push for Parise’s roster spot when things get underway in a week, with some insight from sources around the league.
Julien Gauthier: The likeliest candidate on this list to get a chance to start in the top nine is Gauthier, who has 153 games of NHL experience with the Rangers and Senators. He was traded to the Senators from the Rangers as part of the deal for Tyler Motte on Feb. 19 and finished the season with nine goals and five assists for 14 points in 57 combined games.
One scout broke down Gauthier’s game, after seeing him play mostly in Ottawa after the trade.
“Good straight ahead speed once he gets going. Average edge work. Struggled to finish or make a scoring impact in most games. Not a detriment when on the ice.”
That “not a detriment” part could give Gauthier a leg up on the others we’re listing here, as the Islanders are more likely to value not being a defensive liability than they are someone who takes chances in the offensive end.
Karson Kuhlman: Another player with some significant experience is Kuhlman, 27, who split last season between Seattle and Winnipeg. In 47 games, he managed just three goals and four assists, though. In 147 career NHL games, Kuhlman has 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points.
“I have him as a solid depth player who can fill in a bottom six role when called upon,” said one scout. “Plays an honest two-way game. Know what you’re going to get out of him when inserted in the lineup. Smart, reliable, hardworking. High character kid. Size/strength combo works against the player, but like him for what he is.”
Again, like Gauthier, if the Islanders are looking for a guy who might not create much offense but can be counted on to play responsibly, Kuhlman could earn a place on the roster.
William Dufour: It was a decent first pro season for Dufour, who managed 21 goals and 27 assists for 48 points in 69 games with Bridgeport. Encouragingly, Dufour ended the season playing his best hockey, at least judging from the numbers. He managed 10 points (2 goals, 8 assists) in Bridgeport’s final 12 games of the season.
One scout who got a look at the 21-year-old Dufour throughout the season commented that he has “good size and scoring ability, but he was wildly inconsistent.” That, of course, is usually the biggest hurdle for a young player to clear, and probably means he needs more seasoning in the minors before he’s considered for a full-time NHL job.
Ruslan Iskhakov: A second-round pick of the Islanders in 2018, Iskhakov got off to a tremendous start to his pro career when he was named the AHL Rookie of the Month for October, with four goals and seven assists for 11 points in his first seven games. He couldn’t maintain that level of production, ending the season with 17 goals and 51 points in 69 games. That’s probably at least partly due to his size, as Iskhakov is just five-foot-nine and 165 pounds, but there’s no question he’s a skilled player. Assuming he worked on his strength this offseason, perhaps the 23-year-old can break through.
Said one scout: “Iskhakov started strong, but faded as the year went along. Not sure he’s big/strong enough to endure a full season yet.”
Arnaud Durandeau: The Montreal-born winger got a cup of coffee in the NHL shortly after Mathew Barzal’s injury, and despite not getting on the scoresheet, he was noticeable in his four-game stint. He averaged 13 minutes of ice time and helped to generate a handful of scoring chances, playing mostly with Casey Cizikas and Hudson Fasching. Durandeau has good speed and hockey sense, and considering he’s 24 years old, he could be a little more seasoned than some of the other prospects in the organization. Coach Lane Lambert seemed to trust him right away.
As one NHL scout told us in February: “He’s awesome. Quick off the wall, always competes. Good puck touches up the ice, and inside the dots offensively.”
Jackson Cates: Lamoriello revealed on Monday that Cates, 25, would join the Islanders for training camp on a professional tryout. Expect him to get in at least a couple of preseason games early on as he tries to earn a contract. In 20 career NHL games with the Flyers, Cates had one goal and one assist. Last season in AHL Lehigh Valley, he posted 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) for the Phantoms, where he’s spent the bulk of the last two seasons.
One scout familiar with his game sees him as a guy who can fill in from time to time, but probably nothing more.
“Just an AHL player for me,” he said. “Can give you a game or two as a call-up, but didn’t see any more upside than that.”
Added another scout: “Cates is a minor league call-up. Decent size. Plays a defensive game. Limited offensively.”
The Athletic’s Michael Russo contributed to this report.
(Photo of Julien Gauthier: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA TODAY Sports)