The New York Islanders concluded the regular season with 32 wins and the fourth-best record in the East Division. Considering how the team looked like the top team in the division for the majority of the season, only to fall off at the end to become the final team to make the playoffs, this season might be viewed as a disappointment to some. However, the division was considered one of the tougher ones in the NHL and arguably the most competitive, yet the Islanders reached the playoffs for the third consecutive season. The regular season awards reflect a team with a talented roster that is more than capable of competing for the Stanley Cup and some underlying concerns at the same time.
Most Valuable Player: Mathew Barzal
The offense struggled throughout the season in both the top line and later lines alike, scoring only 2.81 goals per game. The combination of injuries and line adjustments has resulted in a unit that has seen a few skaters finding the back of the net. Still, the Islanders are ultimately being forced to win in defensive games behind great goaltending.
One of the great skaters on the Islanders has been the 23-year-old Mathew Barzal, who continues to create scoring opportunities for himself and the rest of his line. He was only second on the team in goals with 17 and assists with 28 as he led the team with 45 points this season but what truly stood out was his ability to draw defensemen and create on the ice with his skating ability, allowing the rest of the Islanders skaters on the ice to find open shots on the goal. The one critique of the 23-year-old skater has been the inability to stay out of the penalty box, drawing a team-leading 48 penalty minutes, but the great play has stood out despite the team’s offensive struggles.
Honorable Mentions: Brock Nelson, Ryan Pulock, Semyon Varlamov
Biggest Surprise: Ilya Sorokin
It’s easy to take for granted the great play from the first-year goaltender, Ilya Sorokin. The 25-year-old goaltender came over for the KHL with many accolades and awards to his name but still had to adjust to the NHL and the talent the East Division in particular possessed. Sorokin not only was able to become a viable backup goaltender this season, but he was also able to split games with starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov to create a great goaltending duo.
Many fans would argue that the 25-year-old backup goaltender’s play was not a surprise considering his reputation before joining the Islanders. Still, few anticipated a season as great as the 2020-21 season with a .918 save percentage and a 2.17 goals-against average to enter the Calder Trophy discussion as one of the best first-year players in the game.
Best First-Year Skater: Oliver Wahlstrom
Oliver Wahlstrom had a roller-coaster season, to say the least. After scoring in his first start of the season, the 20-year-old forward went scoreless for 10 games followed by a month with eight goals and five assists where Wahlstrom looked unstoppable on the second or third line for the Islanders. The season ended with the young scorer going 10 games without finding the back of the net before concluding the season with three goals in the final seven games to cap off the first season with 12 goals for the Islanders.
Wahlstrom has been inconsistent, but the ability to create scoring opportunities from the wing has added an extra layer to the Islanders’ offense when he can make an impact. He has been able to skate through the neutral zone effectively and, best of all, provide an accurate shot on the net to force opponents to respect his scoring ability and thus open up the offense. The future looks bright for the Islanders offense with the talent that the young skater has shown in only his first year, and the hope is that the young forward only improves from here.
Biggest Disappointment: Cal Clutterbuck
The entire fourth line can be classified as the most disappointing this season, with Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin combining for 17 goals and 36 points. Known as the “Identity Line” for the Islanders, the shift has provided scoring on the backend of the offense while also allowing top-line skaters to rest without worrying about a dropoff. Clutterbuck particularly has been a disappointment, scoring four goals this season and often looking invisible for the Islanders fourth line. While still being able to deliver hard hits along the boards, the 33-year-old forward has become a liability offensively and the team will need him, along with the rest of the fourth line, to step up in the playoffs.
Honorable Mention: Josh Bailey
Best Depth Scorer: Anthony Beauvillier
Anthony Beavillier was one of the few Islanders who stepped up in the final stretch of games as the team was struggling. As the team struggled to find scoring in the later lines and failing to generate many scoring opportunities, the 23-year-old forward was able to score seven goals in the final 11 games, to give him 15 goals on the season.
Beauvillier has particularly been able to enhance the lines he has played on this season, whether on the second line with Brock Nelson or on the wing with Jean-Gabriel Pageau, as he continues to improve his ability to find open shots on the net as well as create scoring opportunities for the skaters on the ice. The play-making ability has allowed head coach Barry Trotz to feel confident in finding scoring in the later lines despite the struggles throughout the regular season.
Honorable Mention: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Best Defenseman: Ryan Pulock
Ryan Pulock, along with Adam Pelech, has been able to form arguably the best defensive pairing in the NHL. The Islanders have been led the entire season by their defense, with all three pairings playing great in both the neutral zone and in the defensive zone, allowing only 2.31 goals per game to often compensate for the struggles on the offensive end of the ice.
The Islanders have received great play from the entire unit, but Pulock consistently has been the best on the defensive end throughout the season. He has contributed 4.3 defensive point shares and 106 blocked shots but has constantly created turnovers and limited some of the best skaters in the game on a nightly basis. Additionally, the team has gotten a boost on the offensive end of the ice from the defenseman with 15 assists and a great slapshot from the point that creates scoring opportunities in front of the net. The 26-year-old defenseman might not win the Norris Trophy on even be a finalist for the award, but the Islanders have been able to once again play some of the best defense in the game, in large part because of the 26-year-old defenseman.
Who Else Stood Out for the Islanders This Season?
The Islanders would not make the playoffs without Semyon Varlamov continuing to dominate as the starting goaltender, allowing the team to win close, low-scoring games throughout the season. Likewise, the defense saw Scott Mayfield and Nick Leddy thrive on both ends of the ice, combining for 46 points to provide a spark from the point while the duo was able to constantly create turnovers and intercept the puck in the defensive zone.
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The team looked great for most of the season and is more than capable of making a run at the Stanley Cup. The first-round opponent will be the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that can score on odd-man rushes and wins with speed, making them a tough team to defeat in a seven-game series, especially considering how the Penguins were able to win six of the eight regular-season games against the Islanders.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.