The days of disregarding the Islanders are over. The Islanders’ days of being perceived as an underdog team are long gone. The expectations are higher than ever.
And nothing will heal the sting of falling just short of competing in the Stanley Cup final the past two seasons, except for proving that the third time is indeed the charm by hoisting Lord Stanley in 2021-22.
General manager Lou Lamoriello retained a majority of the Islanders’ core despite cap challenges this offseason. But it wouldn’t have been possible without a few players taking team-friendly deals, which just goes to show how much this Islanders team has bought in.
The Islanders lost one of their top wingers, Jordan Eberle, in the Seattle expansion draft and had to trade a minutes-guzzling defenseman in Nick Leddy in order to free up cap space. But Lamoriello brought in reinforcements, signing veterans Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara — in addition to bringing back Kyle Palmieri, who was traded to the Isles at the end of last season before signing a four-year deal in the summer.
While the Isles possess the intangibles, including chemistry and camaraderie, the question is whether their aging lineup can go the distance of a full 82-game season and continue to play their grinding style through a third-straight lengthy playoff run.
Without Eberle, who scored the third most goals on the team last season (16), the Islanders will have a new-look top line. Throughout training camp, Palmieri slotted in on the right wing on a line with Anders Lee and Mathew Barzal. Lee’s return from ACL surgery should have a big impact on the Islanders, who severely missed their captain’s net-front presence both at even strength and on the power play. Barzal, the team’s top point producer the last four seasons, will have to keep being Barzal. Plus, Palmieri and Barzal connected for a couple goals the few times they got on the ice together last season.
While players like Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau have consistently found ways to contribute, the Islanders will need more from streaky-scorer Anthony Beauvillier and the still-developing Oliver Wahlstrom. If either Beauvillier or Wahlstrom can generate offense consistently throughout the season, the Isles should be in good shape.
Considering the departed Leddy led all Islanders’ defensemen with 31 points (two goals, 29 assists) last season, it’ll be crucial for the remaining defensemen, specifically Ryan Pulock and Noah Dobson, to fill that void. Dobson is overdue for a jump in both production and ice time, but the latter will be a must now that he’s in line to potentially receive second-pair minutes alongside Zdeno Chara.
Pulock and Adam Pelech remain one of the most notable defensive pairs in the NHL and they’ll likely continue taking a bulk of the matchups against opponent’s top lines. Scott Mayfield is also coming off a strong showing in the 2020-21 playoffs. But between the 44-year-old Chara and Andy Greene, who turns 39 at the end of this month, the Isles’ salt-and-pepper-haired defense brings long-term concerns.
The Islanders own one of the strongest goaltending tandems in the NHL with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin. Varlamov, however, is on Injured Reserve to start the season with an undisclosed injury. Sorokin will be the No. 1 goalie until Varlamov is healthy. Cory Schneider will presumably go on waivers in order for his contract to be filed with the league. If he clears, Schneider will likely serve as Sorokin’s backup.
Sorokin is entering his second NHL season after a strong rookie year, in which he posted a 13-6-3 regular-season record with a 2.17 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. The 26-year-old Russian also went 4-1 with a .922 save percentage during the Isles’ playoff run last season.
Since Barry Trotz arrived on Long Island, the Islanders have bought into the longtime head coach’s philosophy on how they will win the Stanley Cup: You climb to the top of the mountain together, or not at all. The message hasn’t changed. It’s just a matter of completing the mission.
Most important offensive player
Anthony Beauvillier. The 2021-22 season will be Beauvillier’s sixth in the NHL, and it’s time for some consistency. The Beauvillier who shows up in the playoffs will need to show up every single night in the regular season for the Islanders to compete offensively through a grueling 82-game season.
Most important defensive player
Ryan Pulock. With just a dash more offensive contributions, Pulock could make a major difference. Plus, No. 6 is playing for a new contract as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.
The Islanders have no rookies expected to make a meaningful impact.
Key coaching decision
After losing Leddy, who averaged more than 20 minutes a game for the Isles, Trotz will have to figure out how he wants to approach distributing time among the defense. He’s been cautious of overworking Pelech and Pulock before, but Trotz will also have to be mindful of how Chara and Greene respond to their workloads.
The Islanders will likely finish at the top of the Metropolitan Division and easily qualify for the postseason. Barring injury or just a tired lineup from their first full season in a while, the Isles are geared up to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
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