After putting together a breakout 51-point performance the previous year, Noah Dobson was primed to assert himself as one of the NHL’s best puck-moving defensemen for the New York Islanders in 2022-23. But instead of taking the step forward that many expected him to, Dobson stayed stagnant, ending the year with 49 points.
“I just thought, sometimes, things came easier, and things came harder at different times,” Dobson said when the Islanders broke for the summer on May 1. “There were times where I felt I was playing really well but wasn’t getting results, and there were times where you’re playing great, and you’re getting the results with that stuff. So there’s ebbs and flows.”
Early in the year, while the Islanders jumped out to a hot start, Dobson appeared up to the task, averaging 0.7 points per game through the first 20 games of the season. But as the team came down from their early season high through a middling December followed by a brutal January, so too did the young blue liner.
It’s quite a paradox for Dobson, already with four years of NHL experience and only just 23 years old.
“It’s hard to say,” Dobson said. “It varies. Some days you feel like a 23-year-old.”
Dobson especially showed his age when he was forced to defend in his own zone, as opposing teams easily got to the front of the Islanders’ net while Dobson tried to box out.
The struggles that Dobson endured defensively were almost expected, though, which is partly why Islanders head coach Lane Lambert placed Dobson alongside Alex Romanov, another young defenseman whose physical style of play was supposed to complement Dobson’s skill and finesse.
However, rather than hiding their weaknesses, the pairing hindered each player’s individual strengths. According to Natural Stat Trick, Dobson and Romanov’s scoring chances for and against were 218-227 in 437:23 of ice time this season.
“I thought when you play with someone new for the first time, and [Romanov] was adjusting, it’s not easy for him early on, especially being from a foreign country with the language and stuff,” Dobson said. “He’s kind of learning the terminology, but I think he’s a really good player. He brings an element that not a lot of guys have with the physicality, but he makes plays as well. So I’m excited. Hopefully, we can continue to grow and build off one another and keep building that chemistry.”
With scoring numbers low up and down the lineup, Lambert shook up his defensive pairs and opted to place Dobson with Sebastian Aho. While the new tandem did produce offensively, their limitations on defense were well apparent, forcing Lambert to use them sparingly in the Islanders’ end of the ice. But, with players such as Romanov, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield, the Islanders could afford to hide Dobson’s defensive struggles.
Where they needed him to produce was on offense and to lead the team’s power play as the quarterback on the first unit. But with the Islanders scoring only 15.8% of the time, 30th in the league during the regular season, it turned out to be both the team’s and Dobson’s biggest shortcoming.
“We all have pride, and we all know what we’re capable of and what we need to do,” Dobson said. “Power plays are important. I think when things don’t go well, that can weigh on you as it snowballs and doesn’t get better. It’s tough. But I think we all know what we’re capable of. We’ve shown that we can have a good power play. It just didn’t go our way this year.”
And maybe that’s the simple encapsulation of Dobson’s season in 2022-23. He undoubtedly performed to the same standard he set the year prior but didn’t meet the lofty expectations that follow that kind of performance–or the ones that come with a new three-year, $12 million contract.
The question now becomes whether or not Dobson has already hit his ceiling. He believes he hasn’t, but he also knows it’s up to him to prove it.
“At the end of the day, you can say all you want before going out there, it comes down to the guys on the ice,” Dobson said. “It’s on us. Like I said, it didn’t go our way, but I think we can take a lot from it, learn from it, see where things went wrong and correct it, so next year, those same things don’t happen.”