The New York Islanders didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline. Despite possessing multiple players on the roster that could have brought back a strong return and having a disappointing season, Lou Lamoriello and the front office have made it clear that they are confident in the current roster.
The Islanders have only won 28 of their 64 games and trail the Washington Capitals by 19 points for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. With the team on the outside of the playoffs and facing an improbable path in the final few weeks of the season, the hope is that the team remains competitive and finishes the season strong. However, the Islanders have a lot to evaluate within their roster and the next few weeks are pivotal for the team with a lot to watch out for.
Aho on the Defense
Scott Mayfield is out for multiple weeks with a lower-body injury, and in all likelihood, the Islanders will have to play the rest of the regular season without him. The veteran defenseman has been a cornerstone of the Islanders’ blue line and has provided discipline play, especially in the defensive zone. The Islanders finding a defenseman that will replace Mayfield is a top priority but more importantly, finding a defenseman that can step up and be a part of the unit for years to come will be pivotal in the final weeks of the season.
Sebastian Aho is having a promising season with the Islanders in the few games he’s started. Aho is one of the best skating defensemen and helps transition the team from defense to offense following a turnover. Unfortunately, the young defenseman has also struggled, especially in the defensive zone as he allows opponents to gain position and find open shots. Following a rough game against the Boston Bruins, where the 26-year-old defenseman allowed skaters to find open shots on the net at will in a 6-3 loss, Trotz sent the young left-side defenseman to Bridgeport and recalled Grant Hutton. However, for the rest of the season, the team will need to know if they have a blue line skater for the future.
Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene are both pending free agents at the end of the season and considering their age, it’s unlikely they will return for next season. Aho stepping up on the defensive unit provides a glimpse into what the defensive unit will look like in the next season and if the front office needs to address the need in the offseason. Moreover, the next few weeks can allow the Islanders to see if other young defensemen like Hutton or Robin Salo are ready for the NHL and could help secure the left side of the defense.
Varlamov’s Role in Net
Semyon Varlamov was one of the players on the Islanders roster linked to trade rumors with many teams in need of a proven veteran goaltender. The Islanders notably decided to keep Varlamov on their roster as part of the goaltending rotation with Ilya Sorokin. While there’s still a possibility that the team trades the veteran in the offseason with one year remaining on his contract, the front office has indicated that the 33-year-old goaltender will be a part of a roster that hopes to be competitive.
The question is what role does Varlamov play in the goaltending unit? Recently, the veteran goaltender has rotated starts with Sorokin but earlier in the year, the younger goaltender was the primary starter with Varlamov only starting occasionally. Sorokin has taken over as the starter for the Islanders, but if the Islanders want to have their young goaltender start 60 or more games in a season, it’s likely the front office would look for a cheaper option as a backup.
Ideally, the Islanders would rotate their goaltenders and keep Varlamov on the roster next season as a result. For the rest of the season, Varlamov continuing to start and provide the team with stability in the net will continue to prove his value and entice the front office to keep him for the future.
Wahlstrom & Barzal on the Same Shift
In recent games, the Islanders have played Mathew Barzal and Oliver Wahlstrom on the same shift alongside Zach Parise. Finding a right shift for Wahlstrom has been a reoccurring issue throughout the season but playing alongside Barzal has allowed the young forward to take advantage of his speed and accurate shot from the wing which allowed him to find the back of the net against the Detroit Red Wings in a recent 5-2 win. How the duo plays in the remaining games of the season will allow head coach Barry Trotz and the coaching staff to prepare their forward lines for years to come. Having the luxury of starting two young skaters alongside each other and forming a fast and effective scoring duo would likely help turn the Islanders’ offense into one of the best in the league.
The Islanders will look to add a start forward in the offseason in either free agency or in a trade. Ideally, the perfect line for the team’s offseason acquisition would be alongside both Barzal and Wahlstrom, allowing the forward to skate with two quick forwards that can open up the ice in the offensive zone. The intrigue to play alongside the two young forwards only grows as both skaters continue to mature into elite skaters and playmakers in the offensive zone.
Lee’s Continued Progression
Anders Lee has already taken major leaps within this season both in his recovery and in his play on the ice. After missing the season half of last season with a torn ACL, it was unclear how the Islanders captain would look in his return to the lineup. Moreover, would the Islanders still have a goal scorer in the center of the offensive zone that could lead the forward unit, as Lee has done throughout his career?
At first, Lee struggled, scoring only four goals in his first 15 games and failing to find a rhythm in the offense. However, as the season progressed, Lee started to find his spot in the offensive zone and he found the back of the net with quick passes and loose pucks in the slot. The veteran forward has 25 goals on the season, second-most on the team behind Brock Nelson, but noticeably, has looked faster on the ice and is skating better in all three zones, making him one of the best forwards on the Islanders roster. The captain’s continued progression allows the Islanders to have a more effective offense and playing alongside Nelson, the team possesses a formidable scoring line as well.
Strong Play At UBS Arena
The Islanders finally have a new arena in UBS Arena and initially, the teams struggled on their home ice, winning only two of their first 10 games. However, the Islanders have turned UBS Arena into a home-ice advantage recently winning seven of their last 10 games and winning 17 of their 34 games on the season at their new arena. The team will not only look to finish the season strong on their home ice but make the new arena an intriguing destination for free agents in the offseason with the hope that the new location could attract start players to an already competitive roster.
Other Things For The Islanders Rest of Season
The Islanders ideally will look to make a strong push for the playoffs. It’s unlikely they would slide into one of the wild card spots which would likely require a team like the Capitals to struggle immensely in the final few weeks of the season but the team looking competitive will be a promising sign heading into the upcoming season. The Islanders reached the Stanley Cup Semifinal in consecutive seasons and have the roster to win the Cup but this season a lot went wrong, setting up crucial final weeks of the season and the subsequent offseason.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink has written for multiple sports blogs and platforms covering the NHL, NFL, MLB, and college sports. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.