Before a Mathew Barzal injury kept him out of the lineup when the New York Islanders faced the Calgary Flames on Friday night, head coach Lane Lambert had decided to bench rookie centerman Aatu Räty, planning to fourth-line grinder Ross Johnston and place Casey Cizikas back in his fourth-line center role.
But Aatu Räty was in the lineup as he played his seventh NHL game.
While the “Räty scratch” drama played out on social media for roughly 15 minutes, there was a lot of talk about his entry-level contract and how he might be being scratched for that reason.
In August of 2021, the Islanders signed Räty to a three-year entry-level contract. They signed him quickly, just over a month after drafting him 52nd overall in the 2021 NHL Draft.
It was clear how much the Islanders valued him, with general manager Lou Lamoriello saying at the time that they were shocked that he fell that far down in the draft.
Because Räty was 18 when he signed his ELC and did not play a game for the Islanders during the 2021-22 season, his first year slid to this year, known as an Entry Level Slide. And his first year could slide again because he was 19 to start the season.
This is the final year his contract can slide, so if the Islanders send him back to Bridgeport after nine games, the Islanders will keep Räty on his ELC until after the 2025-26. Then he becomes a restricted free agent.
Räty has proven to be a talent, as he has played wise beyond his years in limited minutes. But it would be unwise to let him play another three games at the NHL level and see the Islanders lose a year of control, especially when their centerman outside Mat Barzal are all over 30.
Also, with Kyle Palmieri getting closer to returning and possibly could return when the Islanders take on the Dallas Stars Tuesday night at UBS Arena, there will be no need to keep Räty up with the big club anyway.
Räty can play another two games if need be. But once he reaches nine games, that should be all.
If the Islanders need a centerman down the road, they could recall 24-year-old centerman Otto Koivula, a bottom-six center with NHL experience (20 games). He has 17 points in 29 games with Bridgeport this season.
Letting Räty play top-six minutes, especially after getting a taste of life in the NHL and the NHL game, will be more beneficial to him as he continues to grow than being sheltered at the NHL level.
Lamoriello has his faults, but one area of expertise is player retention. We saw him extend elite defenseman Adam Pelech and his partner Ryan Pulock in 2021, keeping them RFAs. This summer, we saw him do the same with another defense pairing in newcomers Alexander Romanov and Noah Dobson.
On Aug. 13 of 2018, Lamoriello signed an 18-year-old Dobson to his ELC after selecting him 12th overall in that year’s draft. Dobson did not play in the NHL in 2018-19, as he headed back to the QMJHL for a final season. That allowed the Islanders to use the ELC slide, and after his ELC expired following the 2021-22 season, Dobson signed another three-year deal, as he will still be an RFA after the 2024-25 campaign.
And then, after that deal expires, Lamoriello could very well sign a 25-year-old Dobson to another bridge deal, meaning a total of 10 years of control before he reaches unrestricted free-agent status.
That’s the power of not burning a year of an ELC deal, and that’s why it’s critical for the Islanders that Aatu Räty doesn’t reach 10 games at the NHL level this season.