Islanders Weekly is my series that looks at the performance and outlook of the New York Islanders. Every Thursday, Islanders Weekly will take a look at the week that was for the Islanders, highlighting key players and trends while looking at the road ahead.
The Islanders are back and determined to prove that last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Final should be viewed as the norm rather than a fluke. After a long offseason that saw unlikely trades, unfortunate injuries, and contract stalemates, the roster is set and the games are quickly approaching.
Without any action to review to this point, this week’s recap will look at the offseason that was and prepare readers for a busy first week of action.
Relative to many other teams around the National Hockey League, this was a fairly quiet offseason for the Islanders. They didn’t make much noise at the draft or during free agency but nonetheless managed to keep a majority of last year’s core intact. The emergence of several highly-regarded prospects and the availability of a few spots in the lineup gives Isles fans something to watch for over the next several weeks.
While most of the team remains the same, there will be a few important pieces missing when the Isles open up against the Rangers. General manager Lou Lamoriello’s first big move of the offseason was a deal that sent Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a pair of second-round picks. Toews had emerged as a consistent top-four defenseman for the Islanders over the past few seasons under coach Barry Trotz and had been the quarterback of the team’s first power-play unit.
The defense core took another hit when the team announced that defenseman Johnny Boychuk’s playing career was over following complications to an injury he suffered last season. Boychuk was loved and respected by fans and teammates alike and had been a crucial part of a rebuilding Isles defense core of the past few years.
In less draw-dropping news, veterans Thomas Greiss and Derick Brassard took their talents elsewhere after hitting free agency. Greiss, who had been with the team since the 2015-16 season, and was integral in acclimating newcomer Ilya Sorokin when he arrived at the Toronto bubble. He will now look to provide goaltending stability for a struggling Detroit Red Wings team. (from ‘Red Wings like goaltender mix with Jonathan Bernier, newcomer Thomas Greiss,’ Detroit News, 01/07/2021) Brassard signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Coyotes, joining his sixth team since spending the entire 2016-17 season with the Ottawa Senators.
The big piece being added to this season’s Isles team is goaltender Ilya Sorokin. The Russian netminder has been discussed as one of the best prospects outside North America for several years now, and joins an elite group of Russian goaltenders to come over from Russia in recent memory. Sorokin will replace Greiss as the complement to Semyon Varlamov, who figures to draw starts early but could lose some action to Sorokin if the latter performs as his accolades indicate he is capable of.
The Islanders’ other additions to this year’s team address the lack of scoring seen at some points during last season. The team added forwards Dmytro Timashov and Austin Czarnik to its deep group of forwards in advance of this season. Czarnik was listed on the taxi squad on the team’s opening roster, while Timashov was placed on waivers on Wednesday, likely indicating that neither will be on the roster initially.
Several of the Isles’ top prospects appear to have finally broken through and have earned their spots on the roster after strong training camps. Even some of the prospects that didn’t make the cut, including Bode Wilde and Samuel Bolduc, made enough of an impression to stick around until final cuts. The young defensemen should be NHL regulars in short order. One defenseman who will surely have an impact this year will be Noah Dobson.
Trotz named Dobson as one of the primary beneficiaries of the minutes left behind by Toews, presumably including some time on the power-play. Dobson should return to the third-pair role he had in the playoffs after his partner Andy Greene returned on a one-year deal.
In the forward group, all eyes were on Kieffer Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom, with fans everywhere lobbying for the pair of wingers to be placed on the wings of Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Trotz gave that trio a shot in camp and noted that they looked good together. It doesn’t look like we’ll see that line initially, but all indications are that both youngsters will see meaningful NHL minutes this season.
With the emergence of the young forwards, the Isles felt comfortable enough letting veteran Andrew Ladd go through waivers and report to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Ladd will join fellow Islander hopeful Josh Ho-Sang in Bridgeport after the winger did not receive an invitation to camp following his one-year deal with the team.
The Week Ahead
The first week of action will see the Islanders visit the New York Rangers twice, followed by a visit from the Boston Bruins. With the new-look divisions, the Isles will be seeing a lot more of Boston this year but should be prepared nonetheless. The Islanders know what challenges the Rangers present, but after a busy offseason, even their closest rival looks a little bit different.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are one of the more exciting young teams in hockey, especially following back-to-back years with lottery draft picks. Offense wasn’t the problem for the Blueshirts a year ago, as the majority of the issues were seen with the team’s defensive core. The defense remained mostly the same after the offseason, with major question marks still present on the left side of their defense.
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Despite a suspect defense, the Rangers are packing plenty of firepower entering this season. Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin is back for his second season in New York, and his potential placement on a line with Kaapo Kakko, who the Rangers selected second overall in 2019, could mean danger for opponents. The further development of goaltender Igor Shesterkin would be the extra push the Rangers need to compete in an extremely tight East Division.
After an injury-plagued offseason, the Bruins will be looking to return to the playoffs despite several key losses this offseason. Boston’s blue line will be without its longtime captain in Zdeno Chara, as well as power-play quarterback Torey Krug. Chara made his decision to sign a one-year deal with the Washington Capitals, while Krug will be joining the St. Louis Blues, hoping to replace some of the value lost in their former captain, Alex Pietrangelo, signing elsewhere.
Top scorers Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are both recovering from offseason surgeries, but are hoping to be ready to go early on in the season. Marchand is expected to play in the season opener, while Pastrnak is reportedly ahead of his original mid-February return date. The earlier the B’s get both of these players back in the lineup, the better they’ll be as they hope to remain one of the premier teams in the Eastern Conference.
Players to Watch
While it will be interesting to see if the Islanders can get pucks past Shesterkin, more eyes might be on the Rangers’ forward group. Along with Panarin and Kakko, fans will be watching for the encore performance for Mika Zibanejad, who put up 41 goals last season despite missing several games with injuries. Playing on a separate line from Panarin at even strength, the dynamic center gives the Rangers two top lines that can be extremely dangerous.
Finally, the entire league will be watching to see the NHL debut of Alexis Lafreniere, the first overall pick in this year’s entry draft. It looks like the Rangers will start Lafreniere on the third line, but adding him to an already dangerous power-play should add an extra scoring touch to a team that may struggle to keep opponents off the board.
When taking on the Bruins on Monday, the focus will be on shutting down one of the best lines in hockey, albeit without Pastrnak initially. Even without their leading scorer from a year ago, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand are very dangerous together and should keep the Islanders’ defense on their toes. The return of Tuukka Rask is another storyline to watch, as the Finnish netminder opted out of the return to play but is back in Boston to open this campaign.
The Isles will be tested early in the new season, with the Rangers offense looking just as strong as a year ago, if not more so. The Isles will need to challenge the Rangers’ defense, one that struggled at times last year, and get pucks on net against Shesterkin. Boston poses similar threats with their depleted defensive core, but should challenge the Isles offensively as well.
The Islanders have their own players to watch this season, highlighted by Sorokin, Dobson, Bellows, and Wahlstrom. However, they will also need their returning players from last year to take the next step. One player who fits the bill is Anthony Beauvillier, who has consistently shown promise to develop into an elite winger at the NHL level. A next step from Beauvillier could do wonders to improve an inconsistent Isles scoring attack. No matter who steps up, Isles hockey is back, so sit back, relax and enjoy.