It’s November 19th. The New York Islanders are 11-7-0, good enough for a second-place tie in the Metropolitan Division with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Despite the positive record, first-year head coach Lane Lambert has adjusted his lines 14 times, something that struggling teams tend to do.
In the 5-4 loss to the Nashville Predators, Lambert elected to sit Josh Bailey for a second straight game and played Ross Johnston in his place, yet again. The decision to scratch Bailey was “opponent specific.”
There should be no complaints with the move as Bailey has struggled mightily this season, carrying over his struggles from the 2021-22 campaign, while Johnston, besides taking an undisciplined penalty against the Senators on Monday night, had a strong showing against a fast team and deserved another go.
But it was what transpired during the game that exposed the New York Islanders hole in their lineup.
Shortly after New York allowed their fourth goal of the game five minutes into the second period, Lambert decided to shorten his bunch as he took Johnston out of the rotation. Johnston’s skates last touched the ice at 9:23 of the middle frame.
For the remainder of the game, while the Islanders were chasing, players were double shifting left and right.
“We needed offense. We needed to shorten the bench,” Lambert said following the game.
This game was not the first time Lambert has shortened his bench, as we have seen Oliver Wahlstrom and Anthony Beauvillier sit on the bench this season during third periods if the game has been close.
Clearly, Lambert was not expecting that horrendous start to the game. And it’s easy to look back on decisions and judge them. Pulling Johnston early was the right decision, but if Bailey is in the game, a more offensive player despite his struggles, is he riding the bench when the team needs offense?
All these microdecisions come back to general manager Lou Lamoriello and his inability or unwillingness to add to the forward group this summer.
Since the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, Lamoriello showed belief in his forwards, citing that last season’s struggles were an outlier given what they had to endure. And so far in 2022-23, the offense has backed up his beliefs, averaging 3.39 goals per game after just 2.79 a year ago.
“We had confidence in them, and right now, we’re getting the goals that we need to be getting. So, you know, we’re pleased at this point, certainly, where we’re at with our forwards,” Lamoriello said during the Islanders’ morning skate on Thursday.
Despite the uptick, the Islanders still do not have that game-changing forward to play alongside Mathew Barzal, who currently sits tied for second in the NHL with 19 assists but could have over 25 if his linemates buried some more chances with a few opportunities against Nashville.
What’s been the issue for Lambert, because of the lack of moves this past summer, is that he has had to navigate his lineup without a true way of fixing it.
Bailey, the longest-tenured Islander, has a salary cap hit of $5 million, and you don’t see players making that much money ride pine. But with the way Bailey had been playing, Lambert had no choice.
Johnston is a fine player who brings physicality and does more than meets the eye. He’s an imposing player standing at 6’5, 230, but he is an extra forward on a strong hockey team, a role he has been playing for this team since he broke into the NHL on a more consistent basis back in 2019.
The Islanders were rocking with two extra players early this season, along with Johnston, in Kieffer Bellows and Nikita Soshnikov. Both those players were waived, with Bellows being claimed by the Philadelphia Flyers while Soshnikov cleared and was sent to Bridgeport earlier this week.
There is a roster spot available, but it seems like Lamoriello will not be making any call-ups, using that open space to accrue deadline cap space and make life easier for him if he brings in another player.
Anthony Beauvillier is another everyday player struggling, making $4.15 million, and if the Islanders did have other suitable options, there’s a strong chance that he would be an extra right now.
This summer, there were highly-touted players available. You had players like Johnny Gaudreau, Nazem Kadri, J.T. Miller, and a handful of other players that could have helped the Islanders’ offense–game-changing players.
And that’s not to say that Lamoriello did not try or that there was interest from both parties.
On day one of draft night, the Islanders and the Vancouver Canucks were working on something, a deal for J.T. Miller per a league source, but the deal blew up on the draft floor as the Islanders pivoted, sending the 12th overall pick to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Alexander Romanov.
There were rumors this summer that the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders were the one-two option for Johnny Gaudreau before he signed a long-term deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. In an interview with ESPN’s Emily Kaplan earlier this week, Gaudreau said he never spoke with the Islanders this summer.
A lot was going on with Nazem Kadri, as multiple sources told NYI Hockey Now that Lamoriello and Kadri’s camp were in talks but the Islanders’ inability to clear cap space, an issue that should not be the case that late in the summer, forced Kadri to move on as he signed with the Calgary Flames, a team that he had also been talking with from the beginning.
These are stars in this league, players that every team wants, but there were other options like the Phil Kessels of the world, the Nino Neidereitters– you get the point.
If the Islanders are going to be able to be a consistent force on a nightly basis, Lamoriello needs to find a way to give Lambert another weapon to not only stabilize his top nine but bring in that scoring threat that can potentially play with Barzal but at the very least be a consistent threat.
The New York Islanders, per CapFriendly, have over $16 million in deadline cap space, and there will be players available like Bo Horvat, who would be a perfect addition to this hockey team if the Islanders had enough pieces to get a trade done.