The NHL season is around the corner and teams are getting ready for the 82-game schedule that lies ahead. The New York Islanders are hoping to prove that last season, where they went 37-38-7 and missed the playoffs, was an outlier for an otherwise great team. The offseason was a quiet one, and the roster for the most part is the same group from last season, one that is looking to bounce back and make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as they did in 2020 and 2021.
With training camp and preseason games starting in a few weeks, there is a lot to watch out for on the roster. Granted, the Islanders have a lot of the same players from recent seasons, but with a new head coach after Barry Trotz was fired, and questions within the roster, the upcoming weeks will carry significant weight. Specifically, a lot of eyes will be on a position battle on the left side defense during the preseason.
Aho or Salo: Who Wins the Starting Job?
The burning question many have ahead of the season is, which defenseman is going to make the opening night roster, particularly to play alongside Scott Mayfield? The Islanders’ defense last season struggled to stay with opponents and move the puck out of the defensive zone. As a result, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello acquired Alexander Romanov, a proven defenseman who can play alongside Noah Dobson. However, one roster spot remains in question and should be filled by Sebastian Aho or Robin Salo, two of the young defensemen entering training camp.
In his three years with the team, Aho has only played 61 games with the Islanders, including 36 last season. While he hasn’t stepped up as a defenseman, last year showed that he can be a regular contributor to the unit. Granted, Aho received a lot of his starts because of injuries and failed to contribute offensively, scoring only two goals and 10 assists. However, he is reliable in the defensive zone and, in a limited role, would round out the unit.
On the other hand, Salo hasn’t made the same impact, at least not yet. Drafted at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, he finally made the NHL roster last season but has only played in 21 games in his career thus far. However, at 23 years old, Salo is still developing and can become one of the Islanders’ best skating defensemen by the end of the season. Like Dobson in the 2020-21 season, his head was spinning last year as he is still acclimating to the puck movement and fast-paced game.
The question is which defenseman will the Islanders prefer but also what type of player are they looking for in the upcoming season. Aho has a higher floor and is a low-risk option as a depth player. He won’t receive a lot of ice time but will be the final piece in a veteran-heavy roster looking to compete for the Stanley Cup. Salo, meanwhile, has the ceiling to become a second-pairing defenseman, but the question is if the Islanders are willing to allow him to struggle early on as he acclimates himself to the NHL game. In the preseason, both skaters will be fighting for the same spot, and Salo can win the starting job if he proves that he is ready and has refined his game, especially in transition and in the defensive zone.
Can Raty & Dufour Impress Lambert
Aatu Raty and William Dufour are two of the Islanders’ top prospects and understandably so after both skaters impressed at the 2022 World Junior Championships. Raty is the high-ceiling prospect that is a great skater and a well-rounded forward who contributes to every facet of the offense. Dufour, meanwhile, is a scorer off the wing and his shot, in particular, helped the Saint John Sea Dogs win the Memorial Cup last season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Both forwards would add a younger presence to an otherwise veteran roster but the two can notably add a spark to an offense that averaged only 2.79 goals per game last season.
The first question is can either player be ready to start the season? Training camp will likely provide an immediate answer as both Raty and Dufour are sized up against the rest of the roster to see if they are NHL-ready. They will both likely start the season in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Bridgeport Islanders, but an impressive showing in camp can and will be a convincing argument to stay with the team.
The subsequent question is where they would both fit into the roster if they are ready. Raty is a center, and the Islanders have four reliable starters at the position already in Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Casey Cizikas. As a result, Raty will have to start his NHL career on the wing and adapt to the new position, making the preseason games crucial for him in terms of joining the NHL roster. Dufour, meanwhile, is established on the right wing but will need to prove that he can add to the offense, even as a bottom-six forward. Both skaters are on the clock to join the Islanders, and the expectation is that they will by midseason, but if either joins the roster to start the year, it would be a pleasant surprise.
Islanders’ Roster Health
The Islanders started last season at a disadvantage, with goaltender Semyon Varlamov missing the first few games with an injury. His absence early on set the team back, and they failed to recover from a slow start, ultimately missing the playoffs. The Islanders have a roster built around its depth, and a few injuries could derail a promising season. Last season, both Mayfield and Cal Clutterbuck missed the final weeks with injuries, and with Clutterbuck requiring offseason surgery, it’s unclear if he’ll be at full strength to start the season. Lambert has stated that he anticipates the two veteran players will be ready for the season, but the overall health of the team will be closely monitored throughout the preseason.
The upcoming weeks will offer a glimpse into what the Islanders will look like heading into the season. A team riddled with injuries throughout last season, they are now hoping to enter 2022-23 at full strength and ready from the opening night puck drop.
Other Things to Watch Ahead of Islanders Season
An underlying curiosity about the Islanders is what type of team will they be under Lambert. Specifically, will they be a faster team and more offensive-minded, or will they remain heavily focused on defense, as they were with Trotz behind the bench? Additionally, with Lambert running the team, it will be interesting to see whether his style is more disciplined or easygoing and the possible implications of both coaching philosophies. Granted, training camp and preseason won’t reveal everything, but for the first time, the new head coach will be put to the test.
Both training camp and preseason action aren’t going to determine whether the Islanders will have a big year. However, it indicates that the season is around the corner, and the Islanders will be playing meaningful games soon in a competitive Metropolitan Division and much-improved Eastern Conference.
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.