When the 2021-22 NHL season starts this fall, the Islanders’ roster will certainly look a bit different than the one that finished this past season just one game shy of reaching the Stanley Cup Final. There figures to be a lot of news in the next few weeks with the expansion draft that will fill the roster of the Seattle Kraken as well as free agency. The Islanders need to get restricted free agents Adam Pelech, Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin signed to new deals but they also have some work to do in unrestricted free agency.
Front and center in that discussion is veteran forward Casey Cizikas who centers the Islanders’ fourth line or as Head Coach Barry Trotz likes to call it, the “identity line”.
The thought of Cizikas, an Islander since the 2011-12 season, not being back in orange and blue is not an easy one to deal with given what he has meant to this franchise.
“I’ve definitely thought about it, not only from a hockey standpoint but as one of my closest friends,” said linemate Matt Martin. “From a life standpoint, it could be a lot different. I think Casey would want to be back. I think the team would want him back and hopefully it works itself out. He’s got his own decisions to make. I know where his heart is.”
“I almost feel like he’s just a part of me as a hockey player at this point,” said Cal Clutterbuck, the right wing on the identity line. “He’s one of my best friends and he’s just Casey. He can light up a room. It goes without saying that I really enjoy having him and I’d love to have him with me moving forward.”
It’s not easy to keep a team together in sports these days when you factor in the salary cap and free agency. From year to year, a roster is going to change and the challenge for Islanders President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello this off-season will be to find a way to minimize the salary cap casualties and figure out a way to retain as much of a group that has reached the NHL’s final four last two seasons.
Throughout his time with the Islanders, Cizikas has seen it all on both ends of the spectrum so it would be hard for him to say goodbye at a time when the team is a Stanley Cup contender and about to open up a brand-new home in UBS Arena.
“We’ve grown as a group for a long time and we’ve been together for a long time,” said Cizikas, a 4th round pick of the Islanders in 2009. “Just what we’ve accomplished together…it’s something you want to build for. It’s something you want to keep going after with the guys that you’re here with. Everything that we’ve done up to this point…we’ve been extremely happy with but our goal is still to go further. As a group everyone feels the same way.”
Cizikas, in many ways, is the heart and soul of this Islanders group. From what he brings to the team on the ice and in the dressing room as well as being a fan favorite, it’s hard to imagine what this team would be without him. Not having him back is a scenario that the Islanders aren’t really interested in, but this is a business and getting #53 signed to a new deal is one of the major items on the team’s to-do list this off-season.
“Casey has been a big part of this organization for a long time,” said Trotz. “He’s an Islander. You know it and I know it and he feels it. He cut his teeth here. He’s a big part of the organization. Things will work out and we go forward no matter what happens he’s had a big piece in what we’ve done here the last three years and hopefully going forward.”
“We will do everything we possibly can to try and have him come back,” said Lamoriello. We will continue to talk with him. He has expressed his desire to come back but we also know that when you get into free agency, that’s a time for the player to make whatever the best decision is for him, his family and his future and we respect that.”
“I think we all know how important Casey has been to our team,” said Islanders Captain Anders Lee. “Outside of just being a phenomenal player, he’s a great person and has a special place in our room. Of course, we would want nothing more than to have him back with us and we’ll see what plays out.”
The Islanders have enjoyed a lot of success over the past three seasons since the Lamoriello/Trotz era began. They’ve won a lot of games including the post-season with six playoff series wins and two deep runs. Cizikas is one of many veterans on the team, including the likes of Lee, Clutterbuck, Martin, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Nick Leddy who helped change the culture in the Islanders organization but still suffered through some lean years along the way.
It’s a bond that can never be broken, even if Cizikas does not return.
“These are friendships that are going to last a lifetime,” said Cizikas. “We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs together. We’ve had some really good highs and lows but this team is special. We’ve been together for a long time. These guys have meant a lot to not just to me but to my family. We’ve gone through a lot together.”
The hope of everyone in and around the organization is that the team and Cizikas are able to hammer out a new deal and he continues to don the Islanders’ sweater creating more special memories like we just witnessed during the playoff run. That includes a Cizikas overtime game winner in game two of the second round series against the Bruins in Boston
This was the Islanders’ final season at “The Barn” so the playoff run was extra special for Cizikas who will always remember what turned out to be the Isles’ final game there, a 3-2 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in game six of the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
“Game six is going to stand out for me,” said Cizikas. “That was incredible. You’re facing elimination and you go down 2-0. The crowd starts getting going. We never stopped fighting. That’s the game that’s going to stick with me for a long time.”
And now the Islanders and their fans are hoping that Casey Cizikas will stick around Long Island for a long time.