The New York Islanders are having a good season but not a great one. Heading into the new year, they are 19-14-2 which is a respectable start, but they are still in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division. Granted, they have the ninth-best record in the Eastern Conference but they can miss the playoffs if they don’t step up in the remainder of the season.
The Islanders need to make a push in the second half to not only keep up with their divisional opponents but to maintain a hopeful run at the Stanley Cup. As the team enters the new year, there are a few resolutions that can help turn them into Stanley Cup contenders.
Lamoriello Being Aggressive at the Deadline
General manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello has been quiet in recent seasons in terms of roster moves. At the trade deadline last season, he didn’t make any moves, signaling confidence in the core in place. Likewise, in the offseason, despite a need for a scorer, Lamoriello failed to sign the available free agents. While he acquired defenseman Alexander Romanov during the NHL Entry Draft, the offseason was otherwise quiet and uneventful.
The veteran roster has led to a strong start to the season and shown why this core is capable of making a Cup run, as they did in both 2020 and 2021, reaching the Semifinal in both years. However, Lamoriello must be aggressive at the trade deadline this season and make a move if not multiple moves to upgrade the roster. The window for this team to win a championship is now and with an aging roster, they need to make all the moves necessary to remain competitive. Lamoriello needs to make a splash to help the Islanders improve in the division and prepare for a run at the Stanley Cup.
Let the Kids Play
The Islanders’ roster is built on the chemistry a lot of the players have formed in recent years. As a result, it’s hard to bring in younger players, specifically prospects who have yet to establish themselves as regulars at the NHL level and maintain the same success. With a veteran-heavy team, the young players would have to form chemistry with skaters that have been playing alongside each other for multiple seasons. That said, starting the younger players and giving them big roles will not only help the team long term but inject youthful energy into the otherwise aging core that has 10 skaters 30 years old or older on it.
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Aatu Raty showed what he can bring to the offense with his strong game against the Florida Panthers on Dec. 23, scoring a goal in the 5-1 victory. His ceiling is unquestioned as a well-rounded center with a burst of speed and he can be an elite addition to the offense. Along with Raty, Simon Holmstrom has shown flashes in his 14 games at the NHL level and he can provide a spark from the wing in the middle six. Likewise, Hudson Fasching has been a reliable fourth-line forward, filling in for the injured Cal Clutterbuck and stepping up as a hard hitter and defensive forward.
Ultimately, the Islanders adding a young presence could help put this team over the top, especially in the second half of the season. The Boston Bruins in the late 2010s were slowly declining but were given new life when David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy joined the team to add a youthful presence and extend their contending window. Likewise, the Pittsburgh Penguins were on the decline but Jake Guentzel added a burst of speed and energy to the offense to turn the team into a Stanley Cup-caliber one. The Islanders are entering a similar phase and younger skaters are a necessary addition for this team to keep them competitive, especially in a division with a lot of young and talented opponents.
Give Varlamov More Starts
This seems like a poorly timed resolution for the Islanders. Semyon Varlamov is out of the lineup with a lower-body injury and hasn’t played since the Dec. 17 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. Moreover, at 34 years old, it’s unlikely he can take on a strong workload once he returns and will need to take on a backup role.
However, when Varlamov returns, he needs to split time with Ilya Sorokin or at least take on more starts in the second half of the season. This isn’t because Sorokin has struggled, on the contrary, he has looked like a Vezina Trophy contender with a .925 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.37 goals-against average (GAA) on 733 shots. Instead, it’s because the Islanders must keep him rested. He hasn’t looked as sharp in some of his recent starts, allowing 22 goals in his last nine games. Varlamov can keep him fresh for the rest of the regular season and a playoff run.
The Islanders have a phenomenal goaltending tandem, arguably the best one in the league. In the new year, they will need to rely on the duo to allow them to have a successful season and carry them to the playoffs. Varlamov has proven throughout the season that he can be a starting goaltender and if he splits starts with Sorokin, the team might be unstoppable in the net.
Barzal Must Shoot More
Mathew Barzal, who signed an eight-year contract in the offseason, is having a remarkable year as a playmaker. With 28 assists, he’s leading the offense and creating open shots for the other skaters on the ice. However, his goals are down and with only five goals in 35 games, he’s on pace for a career-low in his six full seasons in the NHL.
While Barzal is having a big year as a puck distributor, he’s not taking his shots with only 83 shots on goal despite leading a top-six line. He has a great shot and can find the back of the net himself but is passing up scoring chances or looking for an open skater near the net. He needs to shoot the puck more often, especially when he has open ice in the offensive zone which is common with his skating ability.
Other Islanders Resolutions
The Islanders need to consider a new approach for the power play. Scoring on only 18.87 percent of their opportunities, they need to change up the combinations and the overall approach to turn around the unit. A possible option is moving Romanov to the point, who with a strong shot can help the team find the back of the net more. Likewise, an option for the Islanders is to give Oliver Wahlstrom, who only averages 1:05 ice time on the man advantage, more time on the unit, allowing him to take advantage of his strong shot on the wing.
The most important resolution is for a healthy new year. The injuries, especially to Adam Pelech and Kyle Palmieri, have derailed the Islanders’ season and have bumped them out of playoff position. With a healthy roster, the Islanders can keep up with their Eastern Conference opponents and make a run at the Stanley Cup.