The New York Islanders start the season with a grueling road trip. The first home game of the season is Nov. 20 against the Calgary Flames, as the first 13 games are on the road to start the season. The start to the season is going to be tough both mentally and physically. And only adding to the difficulty of the beginning of the 2021-22 NHL season, the Islanders will be without starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who is currently day-to-day with an injury.
For the Islanders, the road trip adds to the difficulty to start the season, and for head coach Barry Trotz, it will require him to use the entirety of the roster and make adjustments on a nightly basis to avoid falling behind in the Metropolitan Division.
A Test of Fatigue & Depth
The road trip will wear down the Islanders, especially by the back half of the trip when they have to face the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers on consecutive nights, with the Lightning being a game that is circled on the schedule, as Andrei Vasilevskiy and the defense limited the Islanders in the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinal to advance in seven games. The road trip forces the team to travel to Florida twice, Canada, and out west to the Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights, accumulating miles and tiring out the roster in the process.
Some of the teams on the schedule, most notably the Lightning and Golden Knights, who like the Islanders, are poised to be two of the best teams in the NHL as well. In fact, nine of the 13 games are against teams that made the playoffs, and the Islanders, who reached the Semifinal last season, will have to face the other three Semifinal teams, making the opening road trip arguably the toughest stretch in the 82 game season.
Considering all the factors, it would come as no surprise if the 13 game stretch results in five or even more losses for the Islanders. To prevent a dropoff where the team can fall behind in a competitive Metropolitan Division, Trotz will have to keep the roster well-rested and, more importantly, use the entirety of the roster. The fourth line might have to take on more ice time in some of the games to take some pressure off the top-line skaters like Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee. Similarly, some of the younger defensemen like Sebastian Aho and Robin Salo, who might not make the opening night roster, will have to start a few games to give veterans like Andy Greene and offseason acquisition Zdeno Chara nights off.
How the Road Trip Helps the Islanders
Despite all the obstacles, the Islanders can use this road trip to their advantage and ultimately benefit the team moving forward. For starters, the road trip will bring toughness and build character within the roster. And while that sounds cliche, coming away from the toughest stretch early on in the season with six or even more wins allows the Trotz-led Islanders to have an easier back half of the season and become a strong roster in the process.
Furthermore, the Islanders also have the opportunity to pile on the wins with a surplus of home games in the middle and end of the season. The homestand is highlighted by a stretch in January until the February break for the Olympics, where the Islanders play 10 of 11 games at home. That’ll make up for the road games early on in the season and allow them to mature as a roster and continue to climb the standings as the season progresses.
Ultimately, the road trip is going to be a test for the Islanders, but for Trotz and the coaching staff, an opportunity to figure out the roster and some of the potential problems early on. Trotz will have plenty of games to shuffle the forward lines and the defensive pairings, which will provide answers for who can play alongside Barzal and Lee on the top line and who can play alongside defenseman Scott Mayfield after the trade of Nick Leddy in the offseason. The tweaking of the roster early on will make the Islanders a stronger team for a hopeful second half of the season, and more importantly, a Stanley Cup playoff run.
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.