New York Islanders Season Preview
With training camps around the league kicking into gear, we are drawing nearer and nearer to the 2021 NHL season. With tons of storylines and teams to watch in the Eastern Conference this year, let’s focus in on one of the two Eastern Conference Finalists from last year - the New York Islanders. The Islanders, who arguably benefited from the COVID shutdown and subsequent restart more than any other team, return a core group of key contributors from last year’s team. They will also have to rely on a few newcomers as well. Before the shutdown, the Islanders dropped 12 of their previous 17 and were just a single point away from dropping completely out of the playoffs. They used the break to their advantage as they proved to be one of the most dominant teams in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, ultimately finishing their season just two wins shy of the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the eventual champions in the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. I think it’s safe to say that the Islanders far exceeded most people’s expectations last year with their incredible playoff run. With Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz running the show, the Isles will look to repeat the postseason success they found last year.
It would be tough to talk about the Islanders and not open up with the one guy on everyone’s mind – Mat Barzal. Barzal is reported to be quarantining on Long Island as camp continues to move along, with the full intent of getting a new contact signed in the coming days. The team seems to be very confident that a deal will be signed, so I don’t see there being any cause for concern on that front. With the Islanders, like the rest of the league, under a good deal of salary cap pressure, we could see a bridge deal that has become increasingly popular in the league. Many people around the league have pointed to Pierre-Luc Dubois’ deal with the Blue Jackets as a blueprint for what could happen with Barzal and the Islanders. Assuming Barzal signs, their offense will likely start the year with nearly the exact same lines it finished the previous year. With Barzal centering Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle on the first line, look for this unit to be the top point producing line on the roster. We’ve seen this line play together over the past couple of years and know what to expect by now, as they’ve seemingly gotten more and more comfortable together.
Outside of the Barzal situation, the Islanders have had a relatively quiet offseason with very few moves being made. The salary cap remains to be an issue for the Islanders, much like the rest of the league. Most notable for the Islanders was the trading of Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche for two second round draft picks. This trade was made out of the pure necessity to get Barzal’s contract signed and stay under the salary cap. Toews signed for an AAV of $4.1 million with the Avalanche, a number that the Islanders wouldn’t have been able to give him, mainly due to some large contracts guaranteed to terrible underperformers (looking at you Andrew Ladd). Lou Lamoriello, along with the entire Islanders fan base, knows that this is a big blow to the team’s defense, however necessary it was. With Toews gone and Johnny Boychuk being forced to retire as a result of his gruesome eye injury sustained last year, the team will have some defensive holes to fill.
Offensively, not a whole lot will change for the Isles next year. I mentioned the Barzal line as the top producers, but the true strength of this team has been the balanced attack across all four lines. The Trotz system seems to bring out the best in all types of players, and all four lines will be crucial to this team finding success again this year. Islanders fans are certainly excited to see Anthony Beauvillier build on his incredible playoff performance from last year and I expect the second line of Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, and Anthony Beauvillier to continue to find success finding the back of the net, with all three of these guys seemingly having career years last year. Assuming these top two lines continue with the level of production we have grown accustomed to, they should remain relatively unchanged throughout the entirety of the season. With only six remaining forward spots open for a handful of guys, this is where we will see Barry Trotz try some different things and move guys around on a nightly basis. There might be less wiggle room that you may think, however.
The latest news around the Islanders is that the team and forward Matt Martin have reached a four – year deal with an AAV of $1.5 million. Martin has proven to be a fan favorite with Islanders fans throughout his career – having played nine out of his eleven years with the team after being drafted by them back in 2008. This deal almost ensures that the “identity line” of Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck will return to play together next year. When all three of these guys are healthy and playing together, they form one of the best fourth lines in the entire league. We’ve seen these guys give opposing teams trouble with their physical play and swarming pressure. In theory, this leaves only the third line up for grabs from the remaining forwards that have reported to training camp. This, of course, is not set in stone and a lot can change from now to the middle of the season. It does leave Coach Trotz with some key decisions to make in order to round up the opening day lineup.
Islanders’ newly acquired J.G. Pageau is expected to be the third line center, and many will look forward to seeing him complete a full season with the squad. He has proven to be a very solid two-way center, providing both timely scoring and strong defensive-zone play. This leaves only the two wing spots up for grabs and with Derick Brassard signing with the Coyotes during the offseason, we will likely see Trotz start off with two guys he is familiar and comfortable with – Michael Dal Colle and Leo Komarov. There will be plenty of opportunity for other forwards, such as top Islanders prospect, Kiefer Bellows to make an impact. Bellows saw time in eight games last year and made an immediate impact, assisting in his first game and scoring his first career NHL goal in his second game. He was drafted by the Islanders in the first round back in 2016, but is still only 22 years old with a bright future ahead of him. The extent to which we will see Bellows in 2021 is up in the air, but expect to see him in and out of the roster from time to time, along with guys like Oliver Wahlstrom and Ross Johnston. Trotz will likely weave these guys in and out of the lineup based on matchups and chemistry as the season progresses.
With the offense now fully accounted for, we can now shift to the defense, where there is far less to speculate about. With Devon Toews heading to Arizona and Johnny Boychuk being forced to retire, all signs point to Noah Dobson stepping into that starting defenseman role full time. Lou Lamoriello has stated publicly that he wouldn’t have made the move to trade Toews if he didn’t have full confidence that Dobson would be able to fill the void. The Islanders have been grooming Dobson for an opportunity like this, having played him in 34 games last season and even throwing him in the team’s final playoff game against the Lightning after Adam Pelech broke his wrist. The natural pairing will be to pair him with long-time NHL veteran, Andy Greene. This combination of youth and wisdom will be a very interesting pair and it’s seemingly the best possible situation for a rookie to enter the league in an extended role. The first pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock will remain the same as last year, followed up by Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield. As is true with any Barry Trotz system, the defense will be a main focus for him this year. The experience and chemistry of this crew in addition to the youth of Noah Dobson will create an interesting dynamic. Look for the defense to be a strength of this team for yet another year as they will continue to play fundamentally sound defense that will frustrate opponents.
Following the departure of Thomas Greiss to the Detroit Red wings, this defense will play in front of a tag team goalie system in Semyon Varlamov and rookie Ilya Sorokin. Perhaps the most overlooked player on this year’s Islanders team is goalie ‘mega-prospect’ Ilya Sorokin, the team’s 78th draft pick in 2014. With all the talk on the other Russian goalie superstar in New York (Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers), Sorokin has flown under the radar. He has spent the last six seasons in the KHL, putting up some incredible numbers and winning Playoff MVP in 2019. He averages a 1.70 GAA with a 0.93 SV%, stepping it up to 1.37 GAA, 0.94 SV% in the playoffs. From all scouting reports and early indications, Sorokin comes into the Islanders with a high bar. Most recent prospect rankings have him ranked as the third goalie prospect, behind only Igor Shesterkin and Spencer Knight, who we just saw dominate for Team USA in the World Juniors. Sorokin will enter the league under ideal circumstances, having fellow Russian and friend Semyon Varlamov as a teammate to share the net with. The combination of goalie whisperer Mitch Korn and one of the highest ranked goalie prospects in the history of the organization should leave Islanders jumping for joy with optimism about this kid’s future. The Isles have also signed former Devil’s goaltender Cory Schneider to a one year deal as a form of insurance. Overall, there is a lot to be optimistic about for this New York Islanders team. From an outsiders perspective, it may not look like they improved all that much in a very loaded division. They have placed a lot of faith in their prospects and their ability to groom guys into polished NHL players. Their projected opening day lineup is as follows:
1st Line: Anders Lee, Mat Barzal, Jordan Eberle
2nd Line: Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier
3rd Line: Michael Dal Colle, J.G. Pageau, Leo Komarov
4th Line: Matt martin, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck
1st Defense: Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock
2nd Defense: Nick Leddy, Scott Mayfield
3rd Defense: Andy Greene, Noah Dobson
Goalie: Semyon Varlamov
Backup Goalie: Ilya Sorokin
This is a very solid and deep team that has the potential to repeat their level of success from last year. They will certainly have their work cut out for them in the murderers row of the newly realigned east division – in which six of the eight teams are playoff teams from last year. Look for this team to focus on locking their opponents down defensively, focusing on a team defense approach. With most of their roster returning and Coach Trotz placing a great deal of faith in some young prospects, the expectation for this team is definitely to get back to the playoffs and look to make a deep run. This will not come easy as they have their hands full in the loaded East division, but they certainly have the roster to make some noise again.