As the 2022-23 season fastly approaches, the New York Islanders are a team with way more questions than answers at this moment and time. Last Monday, while on Hockey Night in New York, I discussed some of the significant question marks surrounding the Islanders, but let’s dive through as many as we can here.
Was the 2021-22 Season a One-Off?
It’s easy to look at the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 season, and how they ended, to justify that last season’s debacle was just a bad year and that a bounce back is coming. A 13-game road trip, multiple battles with COVID-19, and an irregular schedule all impacted the New York Islanders‘ inability to qualify for postseason play.
The team was not all that different from the 2020-21 season, but without a significant stretch of uninterrupted games early in the season, the streaky offense struggled to get going and by the time the schedule settled down, the Islanders found themselves in too big of a hole.
People must remember that the 2021-22 season was a full 82-game campaign, the first full season in three years. Despite COVID-19, the Islanders had not proven, despite previous postseason success, that they could be consistent enough during a full regular season.
The 2019-20 season was only 68 games for the New York Islanders, who qualified for the postseason because of postseason expansion. They had dropped their last seven games (0-3-4) before the halt in play. In 2020-21, a 56-game campaign, the Islanders used their system and great goaltending tandem to finish in the final playoff spot in the Mass Mutual East, beating up on the weaker opponents and also Boston.
The biggest issue with the 2021-22 campaign was that hole they dug themselves into towards the end of their historic opening road trip and their first stint at UBS Arena.
A strong start, especially at home, is of the utmost importance to give the Islanders a boost to start the 2022-23 season.
Can the Islanders Stay Healthy?
In each of the last three seasons, at least the previous three seasons, the New York Islanders have lost a critical piece to the lineup. In 2019-20 it was Adam Pelech going down halfway through the season with a ruptured Achilles, missing the rest of the regular season but returning for postseason play due to the COVID-19 layoff.
In 2020-21, Anders Lee suffered a torn ACL halfway through, ending his season, which stifled the offense.
Last season, the Islanders dealt with a handful of injuries at different points.
Brock Nelson, who ended the season as the team leader in goals (37 goals), missed 10 games early due to an injury and COVID-19. Ryan Pulock also suffered an injury early in his season, missing 25 games. In March, the Islanders were dealt a few more tough blows as Cal Clutterbuck and Scott Mayfield‘s season ended.
Netminder Semyon Varlamov was also not ready to start the season and never quite looked comfortable until the last month or so.
Having everyone stay healthy over an 82-game season is impossible. With the New York Islanders’ lack of experienced depth, they are a bit slim depending on what department deals with injuries.
Does New Look Defense Impact Offense?
The New York Islanders made one addition this offseason, acquiring a hard-hitting, strong skating defenseman in 22-year-old Alexander Romanov. He has untapped potential, especially on a team that will use him more than the Montreal Canadiens did.
With Andy Greene and Zdeno Chara out of the picture, the Islanders’ defense has the opportunity to get back to their elite ways. Depending on how Lane Lambert decides to pair up his blue liners, each defensive line could have an offensive-minded and a defensive-minded player. Each line is sure to have a transitioner, which means the defense should have more of an impact on the offense, with more chances created from the backend, in theory.
After the season he had, Noah Dobson is likely to have an uptick in responsibilities in year four, while the Islanders still need to figure out which player will fill the no. 6 spot with Scott Mayfield. It seems that Robin Salo, Sebastian Aho, Dennis Cholowski, and Grant Hutton will battle it out for that last spot.
Does Identity Line Have More Left in the Tank?
Over the last few seasons, the New York Islanders fourth line, otherwise known as their “Identity Line,” has not been able to play to the level, given age and injuries. Last season, Matt Martin was not the same player he once was as an ankle injury forced him to miss the start of the season, but it seemed to linger throughout the campaign.
After playing 59 games, Cal Clutterbuck pulled the plug on his season after optioning for double shoulder surgery.
Casey Cizikas was the healthiest of them all, but that line is a three-person unit, and all three have to pull their weight to be effective. In his linemate’s absence, Cizikas struggled to remain disciplined, and as a penalty killer, the trips to the box were a double whammy.
Health is the top priority for the Islanders’ fourth line in 2022-23, but even if completely healthy, are they able to play their game for an 82-game season?
Can Bellows and Wahlstrom Take Big Steps?
Kieffer Bellows ended his 2021-22 season on the right foot, with six points over his last nine games. He was playing more, building confidence in his game, showcasing his not as one-dimensional of a player as people thought.
Bellows has some shot, but the Islanders need more than six of them to enter the back of the net.
For Oliver Wahlstrom, with Barry Trotz out of the picture, there is a chance for somewhat of a fresh start. Although Wahlstrom did not say so himself that there was an extreme amount of pressure when he hit the ice surface in 2021-22, the short leash appeared to have negative impacts on his development.
In a looser system, maybe, that will allow for Bellows and Wahlstrom to bring their offensive game. But to be effective, they still need to understand and execute the game plan, as there is no more room for “rookie mistakes” at this point.
Some of these questions will be answered early in the season, while some answers will take the whole season. Regardless it is a season of questions.