If you want to avoid being hungover, keep drinking. The New York Islanders play on New Year’s Day against the Seattle Kraken, but before we get going in 2023, let’s look back at the Islanders biggest surprises of 2022:
Emergence of Aho
Through training camp and preseason, Sebastian Aho was battling with AHLers for the final seventh defenseman spot on the New York Islanders’ backend.
Turns out quite a bit.
With Salo struggling to provide consistent play, Islanders head coach Lane Lambert went to Aho in gave five of the season and hasn’t looked back as Aho has played in every game since and has brought his game to another level.
In 33 games, Aho has brought his offensive skills with three goals (a new career high) and eight assists. But what has truly stood out has been his defensive play.
Aho has had his usual turnovers and mistakes in the crease, but nowhere close to the rate we have seen in years past. He is averaging .42 giveaways per game this season, whereas last season, that number was at .75.
He’s played on all three defense pairings, more often than not suiting up next to Mayfield.
“I just think that he understands that he has to just keep it simple, and you know, less is more,” Lane Lambert said. You don’t have to do too much. He’s very, very effective, [by] just keeping the play simple.”
Just How Good Varlamov Has Been
If you believed that netminder Semyon Varlamov was on the decline after a disastrous 2021-22 season, did you think wrong.
Finally healthy for training camp and preseason, Varlamov has been a revelation for the New York Islanders, having played a critical role in their ability to kick off 2023 in a playoff spot.
In 12 games this season, Varlamov owns an 8-3-1 record with a 2.65 GAA and a .919 SV%.
Out of 65 goaltenders to have played 500 or more minutes this season, Varlamov has allowed the eighth fewest goals at 31, sixth in save percentage, and eighth in high-danger save percentage (.856).
Especially when Ilya Sorokin was struggling, Varlamov was outstanding before a lower-body injury against the Vegas Golden Knights put his season on hold, as he has missed the Islanders’ last five games.
But if it weren’t for Varlamov’s play, the Islanders would surely not be in a playoff spot.
“I mean, I feel pretty good. Personally, for me, it was important to get back this season and just feel good physically,” Varlamov said. “So I work hard the entire summer to get back on track, and then I feel good like from the start of the season. And I didn’t have any issues with my health, which is great.”
In 10 games, New York Islanders forward Hudson Fasching went from a no-name to a household name.
Fasching was a fringe NHLer at best but was more likely to be a career AHLer. At 27, he’s been given an NHL role due to a magnitude of injuries, and he’s made each shift count. He has two goals and two assists and has been strong defensively. He’s built strong chemistry with Jean-Gabriel Pageau, his likely linemate going forward.
“He’s played well. He’s contributing offensively. He’s playing his role. He’s going up and down, and he’s a big guy who gets to the net,” Lambert said. “He’s doing what he needs to do and doing what he has to do to help our hockey team and has done a good job.”
Because of Fasching’s play, he might have solidified himself as an everyday player, even if some injured players can return.
Unfortunately for New York, they are currently without 21-year-old Simon Holmstrom, who is on Injured Reserve with a lower-body injury. But before the injury, Holmstrom played lights out defensively while just starting to show his offensive game.
In 14 games, Holmstrom had just one goal and one assist but showcased a defense-first mentality that helped the Islanders counteract the loss of defenseman Adam Pelech a bit.
Over that span, Holmstrom has nine takeaways as he has used his stick so effectively in all three zones.
“I’ve said it since camp last year, how good of a player he is and how good of a player he’s going to be, but he puts himself in good positions to get the puck, and he makes good plays with it,” linemate Zach Parise told NYI Hockey Now. “And he could have had a couple of goals tonight, and he’ll get them soon. The opportunities are there.”
With the activation of the defense under Lambert, there was a strong chance that we could see more production from the backend. But for them to lead the NHL in goals up to this point was not something on the Bingo card.
The Islanders have 25 goals from defensemen this season, with Noah Dobson leading the way with 10. Each backend member has at least one goal following Alexander Romanov’s back on Dec. 22 against the New York Rangers.
The backend’s production has masked some of the struggles of certain forwards. The backend scoring has been critical in the Islanders, averaging over 3.22 goals per game, which has taken the pressure off the defense and goaltending having to be perfect to win games.
“I think there’s just a lot more freedom for guys to get involved in the offensive zone,” Ryan Pulock told NYI Hockey Now. “We’re keeping a few more pucks alive that’s leading to scoring chances, and then guys are doing a pretty good shot job of using us and the defenseman getting their shot and good traffic, good screens, and the pucks are kind of going in.”