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Did you blink? Because if you did, it’s already that time of year again. September means the 2021-22 NHL season is rapidly approaching, with training camp set to begin in the coming weeks and preseason hockey beginning Sept. 25. The New York Islanders are coming off back-to-back Conference Final appearances over the last two seasons. The expectations are high coming into 2021-22, despite a key piece or two departing in the offseason, but with plenty of returning faces and some new additions, the focus remains on the Stanley Cup. Let’s dive into the Islanders’ forward line projections for the 2021-22 season.
It was a busy summer for Islanders general manager (GM), Lou Lamoriello, despite some long periods of radio silence that had many questioning who would be on the ice for his team in October. Jordan Eberle was plucked in the NHL Expansion Draft and is now an original member of the Seattle Kraken. Additionally, Lamoriello was able to shed the contract of Andrew Ladd who was shipped to the Arizona Coyotes in a salary dump. That, and a few other transactions, opened up some room to sign returning forwards Kyle Palmieri, Anthony Beauvillier, and Casey Cizikas. Additionally, Zach Parise is joining the Islanders after a buyout by the Minnesota Wild, playing for Lamoriello once again.
Travis Zajac and Michael Dal Colle are also reportedly in agreement to return, despite those contracts not being officially announced and filed with the league. In addition, Richard Panik (acquired in a deal with the Detroit Red Wings), Leo Komarov, Ross Johnston, and Kieffer Bellows will be fighting for roster spots. So, where do all of these forwards fit in the lineup?
|Anders Lee||Mathew Barzal||Kyle Palmieri/Oliver Wahlstrom|
|Anthony Beauvillier||Brock Nelson||Josh Bailey|
|Zach Parise||J.G. Pageau||Kyle Palmieri/Oliver Wahlstrom|
|Matt Martin||Casey Cizikas||Cal Clutterbuck|
|Richard Panik||Travis Zajac|
The first thing you’ll notice is that the first-line, right-wing spot is a toss-up. It’s likely Kyle Palmieri starts the year on Mathew Barzal’s right side, but as Arthur Staple of The Athletic has stated, “Palmieri had some good shifts with Barzal during the playoff run, but that’s primarily due to the style Palmieri plays: It’s very similar to Anders Lee, a below-the-hash-marks, stand-your-ground type of offense. Lee and Barzal are likely to stay together, so having a righthanded version of Lee might not bring out the best in Barzal’s game. Perhaps Oliver Wahlstrom works best there, or maybe Josh Bailey.” (from, ‘How the Islanders’ wave of official signings — and the players not yet announced — fit into Lou Lamoriello’s plan,’ The Athletic, 09/01/21)
It’s not unreasonable to think that Wahlstrom could have a strong camp, and win first-line minutes with Barzal. His lethal shot would complement a distributor like Barzal well, with Anders Lee being the net-front presence to clean up any rebounds. Palmieri, despite showing good chemistry with Barzal, also showed great chemistry with J.G. Pageau in 35 games on the same line together (regular season and playoffs included per Natural Stat Trick). The formula doesn’t have to be so different between the Isles’ first and third lines, with Pageau distributing to a shooter like Parise, and Palmieri working as the net-front presence to clean up rebounds.
There’s no reason to believe the “Killer B’s” line will be broken up. Brock Nelson, Bailey, and Beauvillier have obvious chemistry together and tend to show up in big moments. Coming off a new three-year contract, it’s another year that Beauvillier will be looking to take another step forward in the Isles’ top-six group. Consistency in his scoring could propel the Islanders to another level going into his age-24 season. Nelson will be looking to finally record his first 30-goal season. He was on his way to his first 30-goal season in 2019-20 before the NHL was shut down.
It may have come as a surprise when Lamoriello protected Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck in the expansion draft, but there was a reason for doing so. The Islanders GM wanted to ensure that Casey Cizikas (coming off a new six-year, $15 million contract) would be skating with his usual linemates on “the identity line.” For at least another season, the Islanders’ fourth line will be depended on to bring the energy and possibly turn the tide of a game.
“These guys are my family. I’ve created friendships that will last a lifetime,” Cizikas said. “I’m going to die an Islander. That’s the way to put it.”
The newly acquired Panik is certainly appealing as an extra forward for the Islanders, mostly due to his $1.375 million average annual value (AAV) for two more seasons. The Red Wings retaining half of his salary helps the Islanders’ cap situation, as opposed to Komarov, who (like it or not) has been an effective player with an unappealing cap hit ($3 million AAV). Whether there’s a move for Komarov (amongst other players such as Thomas Hickey) remains to be seen. His style of play complements Barry Trotz’s system well, and he’s a fine depth forward to help the Islanders last an 82-game season, and a deep playoff run.
Zajac returning also bodes well for the team. The Islanders are certainly deep at the center position, but he provides excellent depth with the ability to fill in regularly barring injury. Additionally, he fit in fine on the wing when called upon. That’s not to say he put up a plethora of points, but he was effective in his own end of the ice, and was never a liability. A veteran presence in the locker room, he’ll serve as a leader off the ice, in addition to when he gets his shot on the ice.
That leaves Komarov, Dal Colle, Bellows, and Ross Johnston. It’s hard to imagine any of them win a roster spot over the previously mentioned names. As stated earlier, maybe there’s another move to be made with a need on defense. If not, you could see this group starting with the Islanders’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Bridgeport, and receiving a call-up if injuries pile up.
The forward group remains deep for the 2021-22 NHL season, and is poised for another deep playoff run despite playing in the juggernaut Metropolitan Division. “(The Islanders) have been a perennial powerhouse, they’ve made it to the Eastern Conference Final two years in a row. Now, I would say they’re the Stanley Cup favorites,” said former NHLer John Scott on the latest Dropping the Gloves podcast. The forward group is replenished due to some fantastic work this summer by Lamoriello, and the Islanders have their sights set on the Stanley Cup.
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