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New York Islanders

Islanders Mid-Season Grades: Dobson And Barzal Heads Of Class

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AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

The New York Islanders are halfway through their season.

In 41 games, they have 48 points with a 19-12-10 record, keeping them in the race within the ultra-tight Metropolitan Division.

For better or worse, everyone involved with the Islanders has affected where the team currently stands, so let’s break down who’s pulling their weight and who’s being pulled along.

The grades for each individual are based on how well they’re playing their role and whether or not they’re meeting the standard of play that’s become expected of them from their past performances.

Grading Scale:

A – Excelling above and beyond expectations

B – Playing their role well, but there’s more to give

C – Meeting Expectations. No more, no less.

D – Falling Behind

F – Failing

Sebastian Aho: C-

Sebastian Aho has always been steady.

He’s a decent puck mover who contributes on the power play and is solid enough in his own end where he can be trusted not to make mistakes.

You could do a lot worse than Aho. However, you can also do better, and it seems the Islanders have with the addition of Mike Reilly.

The journeyman defenseman has come in and taken on much of the same role as Aho and is playing it at a higher level.

For now, the two are making for a fast-moving pairing. But if and when Ryan Pulock gets healthy, I’m not sure you can make the argument to keep Aho in the lineup over Reilly.

Mathew Barzal: A-

Statistically speaking, Mathew Barzal has been the Islanders’ best player this season.

With 45 points, he’s the team’s leading scorer, putting him on pace to reach a new career high. That’s all the more impressive when you remember that Barzal is coming off an injury-shortened campaign and has made the full-time switch over to the wing, doing so in stride.

This is by far the best version of Barzal we’ve seen in a while. And yet, I still don’t think he’s hit his full gear.

Just wait, though. It’s coming. When it does, watch out.

Samuel Bolduc: C +

The Islanders gave Samuel Bolduc a one-way contract this past summer because they expected him to be their sixth defenseman to start the season.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, Bolduc was thoroughly outplayed in training camp by Sebastian Aho and started the year as a healthy scratch. However, with the Islanders’ defense corps ravaged by injuries this season, Bolduc has received consistent playing time.

As a result, he’s begun to show subtle but noticeable improvements in the details of his game.

Robert Bortuzzo: C

It’s hard, and probably a little unfair, to assess a player’s contributions with only an 11-game sample size.

Robert Bortuzzo came in as an emergency pick-up from the St. Louis Blues and played as advertised while filling the holes in the Islanders’ back end left by injuries. But in a cruel twist of fate, Bortuzzo suffered one of his own.

He may not get back into the lineup this year, but he can still provide some value as the one player in the Islanders dressing room to ever hoist the Stanley Cup.

Casey Cizikas: C-

The feisty energy that is the trademark of Casey Cizikas’ game is still as present this year as ever.

Whenever the Islanders need a jolt with a solid shift, it’s usually Cizikas and the fourth line that provide it. However, one of his biggest responsibilities is killing penalties, and that’s been the crutch of this team the entire season.

The shorthanded unit’s regression doesn’t fall on Cizikas alone, but he and all the other penalty-killers had their grades suffer because of it.

Now that Cizikas is out of the lineup for the foreseeable future, it makes you fearful of how much worse things can get.

Cal Clutterbuck: D+ 

Like Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck’s grade took a hit because he, too, is relied upon to kill penalties, but it is also slightly worse because I don’t see him matching the same energy on the ice he once used to.

You can tell by Clutterbuck’s instincts and how he moves that he’s a 36-year-old who’s played over a thousand NHL games.

Noah Dobson: A+

I expected Noah Dobson to bounce back after having a somewhat disappointing performance last season.

But I probably wouldn’t have believed you if you told me that he’d transform into the Islanders’ top defenseman and be worthy of some consideration for the Norris Trophy.

With 42 points, he’s third in the league among all defensemen and is second to only Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty in average time on ice.

But now that the bar has risen, so too will the expectations.

Pierre Engvall: D

Pierre Engvall was a revelation for the Islanders when he joined them last season.

Now, the Islanders are wondering where the player who earned a seven-year contract as a free agent this summer went.

Engvall’s offensive production has been inconsistent this year, and even more so has his defense. As a result, he’s found himself as a healthy scratch twice.

Hudson Fasching: C

Through effort and determination alone, Hudson Fasching played himself into the Islanders’ starting lineup in 2022-23.

Through no fault of his own, that role has decreased for him this season. Fasching has cycled in and out of the lineup as the Islanders have an abundance of depth forwards, all jockeying for playing time.

Julien Gauthier: C+

Julien Gauthier is another one of those depth forwards who has been fighting to carve out a consistent role on the team this year.

When Gauthier has gotten his chances, he’s made the most of them, using his speed to move the puck in transition and a heavy shot to score some timely goals.

Now, all he needs is to do that more consistently.

Simon Holmstrom: B-

If not for Noah Dobson, Simon Holmstrom would easily win the award for most-improved Islander in the first half this year.

And if not for the team’s awful penalty kill, his grade would be higher.

Still, Holmstrom has cemented himself as a legitimate NHL-caliber player. But once again, this penalty kill is killing this team.

Bo Horvat: A

What can’t Bo Horvat do?

No matter what moment or situation the Islanders are in, Horvat is usually the one having his number called.

He himself is generating a point per game, and his connection with Mathew Barzal is bringing out the best in each of them.

It’s safe to say all the worry over his disappointing first run with the Islanders was all for nothing.

Anders Lee: B-

If I ignore the first 15 games of the season, Anders Lee would have a grade similar to his linemates in Horvat and Mathew Barzal.

The Islanders captain fits in nicely with those two as he lets them space out and command the defense’s attention. All the while, he battles in the corners and in front of the net, picking his spots when they come, and they have more often than not.

Lee leads the team in expected goals, according to Moneypuck.com. He currently has 11 goals to his name, which is fourth on the team.

Not too bad for a player who looked like he was out to lunch through the first few weeks of the season.

Matt Martin: C

It’s hard to think of anyone on the Islanders who understands their role better than Matt Martin does his own. After all, he’s only been playing it with the team for a combined 13 seasons.

This year, he’s been slowed by injuries and is seeing less and less ice time with the Islanders playing in so many tight games.

But when he does get to play, Martin provides a presence that steadies the Islanders and makes opponents wary.

Scott Mayfield: D+ 

The prototypical penalty-killing defenseman Scott Mayfield has looked anything but for the Islanders, and his play at even strength hasn’t been stellar, either.

Granted, he’s missed two separate stretches of the schedule due to injury, but Mayfield hasn’t given the Islanders all that much when he’s been in the lineup. In fact, he’s given more to opposing teams.

Despite playing in a little more than half as many games as Noah Dobson, Mayfield has nearly just as many turnovers, which is startling for a player who doesn’t handle the puck all that often to begin with.

Brock Nelson: B

Steady, consistent, underrated.

Once again, Brock Nelson is the leading goal scorer for the Islanders, as he’s right on pace to notch 40 for the first time in his career.

It’s a standard that’s become expected of Nelson over the last few years. Although he hasn’t necessarily raised the bar for himself, he gets credit for carrying his line.

With 24 xGoals For, the Islanders’ second line is the best in the NHL when it comes to generating scoring chances, according to MoneyPuck.com, and it’s not because of Pierre Engvall or Kyle Palmieri.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau: D+

Jean-Gabriel Pageau was dealt a tough hand to start this season, with his linemates constantly being shuffled around him.

As a result, he never got going offensively and still hasn’t.

And have I mentioned how bad this team’s penalty kill is?

Kyle Palmieri: B-

With 23 points so far, Kyle Palmieri is having his best season as an Islander by remaining healthy.

His efforts as the net-front presence on the top power-play unit have worked wonders and is a decision by Lane Lambert that isn’t talked about enough.

The Islanders need Palmieri to translate that to five-on-five and provide Brock Nelson with some more help.

Adam Pelech: C-

Not that it’s his fault, but Adam Pelech has had a rough start to the season, as missing 20 games with an injury will certainly put a damper on things.

Even still, Pelech hasn’t looked great when he has been on the ice and didn’t before he got hurt.

But now that he’s returned from his prolonged absence, I expect Pelech to find his footing and resemble his old self through more playing time.

Ryan Pulock: B-

Ryan Pulock was quietly one of the Islanders’ best players to begin the year, as he and Alexander Romanov had a long stretch as a defense pairing without allowing a goal.

But once Adam Pelech got hurt, Pulock’s minutes increased, and he began to be stretched too thin.

Now, Pulock is the one on long-term injured reserve. If and when he returns, it’ll give the Islanders possibly the deepest defense corps in the entire NHL.

Mike Reilly: B

Mike Reilly’s play for the Islanders makes you wonder what the Florida Panthers didn’t see in him.

He was only supposed to be a fill-in while the likes of Aho, Pelech and Pulock were hurt. Instead, Reilly has quickly carved out a role for himself.

Even once the Islanders are healthy again, there’s little reason to think Reilly should automatically come out of the lineup.

Alexander Romanov: B

Noah Dobson is being heralded for his improvements this year, and rightfully so. But his progress is also overshadowing that of his defense partner.

Alexander Romanov looks far more comfortable in his second season with the Islanders than in his first, giving the team two solid young defensemen who nicely complement each other.

Ilya Sorokin: C-

After establishing himself as an elite NHL goaltender last season, Ilya Sorokin has underwhelmed so far.

Of course, he hasn’t gotten a lot of help, but what makes goalies elite is their ability to bail out their teams by stealing wins when they don’t deserve them. Sorokin has not done that much this year when there have been more than enough chances for him to do so.

Does this mean I think he’s played poorly? Absolutely not.

However, to say he’s performed up to the elite standard that’s expected of him would be wildly inaccurate.

Semyon Varlamov: B

Semyon Varlamov is boring, and that’s a good thing.

He doesn’t make highlight reel saves or make you fearful of blowing a lead.

The veteran is calm in his crease, square to the puck and keeps the Islanders in the game. What more could you ask of a backup goalie?

Oliver Wahlstrom: D-

Coming off an injury-shortened season and playing under a prove-it contract, this was supposed to be Oliver Wahlstrom’s comeback tour. Instead, it’s been more of the same song and dance.

Wahlstrom has spent most of this season as a healthy scratch and frequently plays the least amount of minutes on the team when he gets into a game.

I was hoping for more out of Wahlstrom this year. We all were.

Lane Lambert: C+

I’m sure for most of you, any grade other than an F for Lane Lambert is infuriating.

While his coaching job has been far from perfect this year, Lambert is quick to hold his players and himself accountable.

Far too often last year, Lambert stuck with the same lineup despite bad results. He’s been much more proactive this season and hasn’t been afraid to break the status quo either.

Lou Lamoriello: B+

Like Lambert, Lou Lamoriello hasn’t hesitated to fix issues as soon as they arrive for the Islanders.

When Adam Pelech went down, he brought in Mike Reilly. When Ryan Pulock got hurt, he added Robert Bortuzzo. They weren’t moves that had Elliotte Friedman racing to break on X, but they were very much needed and have worked well.

However, with the Islanders in a tight playoff race, a move like that will need to be made eventually.

The Islanders: C+

The Islanders are what many expected them to be by challenging for a playoff spot.

However, the Islanders have also subverted those expectations.

They’re not a team winning on goaltending, gritty defense and contributions from role players. Instead, it’s been a top-10 power play and the production of their star players that have gotten them this far.

If only they can find the balance.

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