Questions about the New York Islanders’ offseason have continued throughout the summer. Did they miss out on big free agents, or did they avoid signing players around 30 years old to lengthy seven-year deals? Are bloated middle-six contracts inhibiting general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello from making moves, or does this group, who made it to back-to-back Conference Finals, have more gas in the tank?
The answers largely land in the middle, though at this point, it’s a better exercise to discuss the cards they’ve dealt rather than rehash the lack of news from the last few months. Here are three questions facing the Islanders ahead of the 2022-23 season.
Islanders’ Defense Pairings
When Lamoriello traded the Islanders’ 13th overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft to the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman Alexander Romanov, there were a lot of comments, both positive and negative. Questions linger as we figure out where Romanov will fit into the lineup. On paper, it makes sense to pair him with Noah Dobson. The two could play well off each other, as Dobson is more of an offensive defenseman, and the hard-hitting Romanov could give Dobson room to operate. However, considering Romanov’s comments about working on his puck skills this offseason, which some have noted about his game, perhaps that pairing isn’t as obvious as we thought.
“All offseason, I work only with the puck, with skills cause I want to improve my game with the puck, honestly. But I also can play physical. I also can hit guys and start attacks, like breakouts, but I want to play more in the offensive zone.”– Alexander Romanov, Islanders’ Press Conference, August 2022
Still, the two young defenders should get a look together to begin the season and could be “the pairing of the future,” as Ethan Sears wrote in the New York Post recently (from “Alexander Romanov, Noah Dobson may be Islanders’ pairing of future,” New York Post, 8/23/22). Dobson and Romanov could mirror the top pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. Pulock has a bit of an offense flair to his game, and Pelech brings an edge and the ability to be a shutdown defender. But as we saw over the last couple of seasons, Pelech’s ability to handle the puck and escape ongoing forecheckers while maintaining possession with grace has been a sight to see. Maybe Romanov can bloom into a Pelech-type player.
Assuming Romanov makes it on the second pair, that leaves the Islanders’ third pair with an ‘X’ next to veteran Scott Mayfield. Robin Salo, who turns 24 at the beginning of the season, appears destined to, at the very least, get a shot next to Mayfield. Even if it’s his spot to lose, the Islanders don’t have all that much room to work with, both in terms of cap space and roster space.
As it stands, the Islanders have all 23 roster spots used up, though that includes Richard Panik and his $1.375 million cap hit. Moving Panik to the Bridgeport Islanders would alleviate all but $250,000 of his contract from the cap. Adding Salo and removing most of Panik’s cap hit leaves the team with about $2.6 million at the start of the season.
Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Lamoriello invite a veteran defender to training camp on a professional tryout using what little cap space they have left for a seventh defender. However, Sebastian Aho, a veteran in his own right, though not in the NHL, appears to be Lamoriello’s safety net if Salo stumbles next to Mayfield or needs a rest at any point. Without another move, the back-end will enter the 2022-23 season with an infusion of youth compared to last season. Will it hold up? Will there be an improvement versus last season? We’ll see.
Islanders Forward Lines
No matter what you think of the makeup of the Islanders’ forward lines, the players at head coach Lane Lambert’s disposal are what they are at this point. Like the defense, Lamoriello doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver. The 23-man roster includes extra forwards Ross Johnston and Kieffer Bellows, the latter of which believes he can be a regular in the lineup. Following a disappointing 2021-22 season filled with circumstances out of their control, some, like Mike Rupp, believe the team can bounce back in 2022-23 with the same group.
Be that as it may, there are still questions about where players will fit, especially on the first line. Anders Lee had a bit of a renaissance when former head coach Barry Trotz reunited him with Brock Nelson. J.G. Pageau and Kyle Palmieri clicked near the end of last season as well, and Zach Parise seems like a nice fit next to those two veterans to make a pretty skilled third line. Mathew Barzal remains the first-line center, but from there, it’s a bit of a toss-up with a trickle effect to the second and third lines, which leaves Oliver Wahlstrom, Josh Bailey, and Anthony Beauvillier for the remaining three wing spots in the top six.
Will Lambert gamble with placing Wahlstrom next to Barzal on the first line? If so, who flanks them on the left? Could we see a 25-and-under line of Beauvillier – Barzal – Wahlstrom? Bailey also makes sense opposite Wahlstrom as a setup man, leaving Beauvllier with Lee and Nelson, who had success as a line last season. Putting aside some of our earlier guesswork, Wahlstrom and Palmieri could swap places, giving Palmieri time to click with Barzal and Wahlstrom easier competition and two veteran players in Pageau and Parise. The fourth line isn’t expected to change, so no need to dissect what Lambert may do there.
|Josh Bailey||Mathew Barzal||Kyle Palmieri|
|Anders Lee||Brock Nelson||Anthony Beauvilier|
|Zach Parise||J.G. Pageau||Oliver Wahlstrom|
|Matt Martin||Casey Cizikas||Matt Martin|
Additional questions arise, given possible injuries or slumps. Parise (38) was one of the rare players to skate in all 82 games last season. Will his health hold up? Matt Martin also appeared to slow down for the first time in his career, unable to keep the energy we’ve seen for so many seasons on the Islanders’ fourth line. Those two players could easily be plugged with Bellows and Johnston, respectively, but what happens if someone slumps like last season or if any additional injuries occur? Aatu Raty and William DuFour will be waiting in the wings, though a move to injured reserve or long-term injured reserve (LTIR) would need to happen to free up room on the roster.
The Lane Lambert Effect
With much of the roster the same, save for Romanov and Salo, the biggest question mark is Lambert. While it’s expected the team won’t be completely transformed, Lambert’s goal must be to create some balance in the team’s on-ice strategy. The defense was a force to be reckoned with during Trotz’s first three seasons as head coach, but a glaring issue was the lack of offense due to the apparent short leash on the team’s forwards.
Defense remained a focus for Lamoriello during his August press conference, to the surprise of no one, calling himself a “goal differential” guy” despite the results from the last few seasons. “Lane [Lambert] is his own person. Lane worked with Barry [Trotz] for a number of years, and we all know Barry is a great coach,” Lamoriello said. “What Lane takes from Barry, and what Lane had the opportunity to observe, and whatever changes I feel he will make, I feel it will make us a better team. We will be a little more offensive, but we will not give up defense.”
How much more can Lambert rearrange the deck chairs? Trotz was forced to try combination after combination when players went down with COVID-19 or other injuries throughout 2021-22, leaving Barzal with a revolving door of players on his wings and a roster of American Hockey League players at times. As any player can attest, consistent linemates are key to success, and the Islanders need to start like they mean to continue in 2022-23 after a rough previous season. Other than strategically, there’s not a whole lot Lambert can try that Trotz didn’t already.
As The Atheltic’s Kevin Kurz pointed out, the Islanders’ preseason begins three weeks from Monday. That doesn’t leave much time to answer these questions if they haven’t already. The veteran roster has been together for a number of years and remains tight. Will that be enough to get them back into the playoff conversation and lock up a spot next spring? It won’t be an easy road, but perhaps a healthy roster, a new coach, and a long summer will do this team right.