Next week, the New York Islanders will take the ice for day one of training camp to prepare for the 2021-22 season. After getting past last season and the impact that the Coronavirus had on the entire league, this year presents a different challenge, as the team will open with a 13-game road trip as UBS Arena is completed.
It’s been a quiet, but busy, offseason for team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and his staff, who for the time being, have managed to keep most core pieces in place. Did he do enough? Are the Islanders set up to return to the mountain and possibly, climb higher than before? Consensus thinking is that the final chapter prior to puck drop has yet to be written.
First, let’s take a quick review on what has been done, before finishing with three burning questions as the league opens its doors on the new season.
Adam Pelech, Casey Cizikas, Anthony Beauvillier, Kyle Palmieri and Ilya Sorokin all have new contracts under their belts. All of these were expected, but were never officially announced until just recently. Still up in the air is whether Travis Zajac will return as an extra forward. Some say yes, others say no.
Nick Leddy was shipped to Detroit and Andrew Ladd to Arizona in two cost-cutting moves, saving precious salary cap space. Jordan Eberle was plucked by the Seattle Kraken.
From the outside, enter Zach Parise, whose best days might be behind him, but playing in a third line role at around 12-14 minutes per night, could still provide a scoring boost to New York’s bottom six. Richard Panik was also brought in via the Leddy deal, but is not expected to make an impact.
Who ends up on New York Islanders ‘first’ line
Everyone would like to see Oliver Wahlstrom get a crack at playing with Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee. Count me among them. It just makes sense. Wahlstrom is the pure shooter to Barzal’s puck control and passing wizardry combined with Lee’s net front presence. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
More than likely we see Kyle Palmieri, the player who Lamoriello gave up a first-round pick for, slot into that role to begin the season. And my hunch is head coach Barry Trotz will be very patient with this trio as they work to develop the chemistry to challenge the Metropolitan Division’s top defenders.
The ‘third’ line could end up looking like Jean-Gabriel Pageau centering Parise and Wahlstrom. That, too, could be a dynamic line given each of the forwards’ skill sets. So, what ends up happening might not be what you nor I want, but could actually benefit the team in the best way possible. Your ‘second’ unit, of course, would be Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier with the “Best Fourth Line in Hockey” staying together for at least another season.
Who replaces Nick Leddy at LD?
The Islanders biggest question mark heading into training camp is easily the defense. We have seen Nick Leddy at his best and we have seen him at his worst. He didn’t win the most puck battles, in fact, he was losing more and more as the years wore on. But, he was the only legitimate blueliner that could successfully skate the puck out of the defensive zone in transition. Let me make that more clear – the only one who did it consistently.
The others are more ‘dump and clear’ defenders. As we have heard over the years, good defense leads to good offense. You have to be able to skate and pass the puck out of your own zone. Otherwise, you become what the Islanders have been accused of being – boring.
Simply speaking, the top four are solid in Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Noah Dobson. After that, it gets very questionable. Andy Greene is approaching retirement age. Does Trotz really trust Sebastian Aho or 21-year old Samuel Bolduc? Not much depth to lean on in Bridgeport, either, with Bode Wilde not ready and no, Paul LaDue is not the answer.
There could still be a trade that Lamoriello is working on to fill this gap, although the choices are what one could consider ‘slim pickings’. Maybe he decides to bring in Zdeno Chara for a reunion tour at age 44 with 1,608 games under his belt. Or maybe Erik Gustafsson is the answer. He did have one terrific season in 2018-19 with the Chicago Blackhawks, but that now seems more like the exception rather than the rule. He will attend Islanders training camp on a PTO.
Are the New York Islanders poised and positioned to repeat in the final four?
I’d say, at forward, the Islanders are fine. Some think they still need a natural finisher, but they might have one in Wahlstrom. We’ll never know unless he gets a bona-fide opportunity. Lee coming back full strength is a big bonus and if Parise can pot 15-20 goals, that will provide the lift the third line needs.
Goaltending is fine yet again with the tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Sorokin under the tutelage of Mitch Korn and Piero Greco.
The defense is meh currently. It will be a question until Lamoriello provides an answer.
The biggest X-factor, however, that nobody seems to be talking about is lady luck herself. New York was remarkably healthy on the blueline in last season’s 56-game sprint. Can they repeat that over 82 and possibly longer?
Stay tuned. It’s almost time to find out.