The New York Islanders and looking to bounce back after last year’s disappointment and not only reach the playoffs but also compete for the Stanley Cup. After a quiet offseason, the pressure is on the veteran-heavy roster to prove that last year was just an outlier. Specifically, a handful of players will need to step up to carry the team to the playoffs in a competitive Metropolitan Division.
There are plenty of players that can become X-factors for the Islanders this season. While Brock Nelson, Mathew Barzal, and Anders Lee are expected to carry the team, a few players are going to be essential to the team’s success and if they have a big season can help out Lane Lambert in his first year as the head coach. They not only consist of some young players that are looking to break out but also veterans that hope to once again play a major role in the team’s success.
Oliver Wahlstrom is entering his third full season with the team and his age 22 season, making him one of the few young skaters on an Islanders’ roster that otherwise is one of the oldest in the NHL. He has shown that he has a high ceiling and this could be the year he establishes himself as a top-six forward.
Wahlstrom was expected by many to become a regular and possibly a star last season, especially after 2020-21 when he scored 12 goals and added nine assists. Instead, he remained a role player in the offense, averaging only 12:04 ice time with brief stints in the top-six. It can be argued that he took a step back last year and was never able to optimize his skillset. However, the minimal time in the offense can be seen as a negative in the Barry Trotz coaching style, which preferred a veteran presence in the top-six.
Under a new system, this could be the year Wahlstrom is unlocked and emerges as a top-line forward. A lot of his success is going to depend on his ability to tap into the strong shot he has on the wing along with his speed, especially when playing alongside Barzal or Nelson. The talent though isn’t the question, as he has proved that he can become a productive player in the Islanders’ offense, notably after a stretch during the 2020-21 season where he scored eight goals in 16 games. If he can have a big year, the Islanders will look like an entirely different team with a much-improved offense and a young scoring presence leading the way.
Kyle Palmieri was one of the best players on the Islanders in the second half of last season. After struggling out of the gate, fans questioned the decision to sign the former New Jersey Devil to a four-year deal as he contributed little to the offense. However, in the final 40 games of the season, he scored 14 of his 15 goals to finish the year as one of the best skaters on the Islanders.
The Islanders’ offense improved in the second half of last season for a multitude of reasons, as they went from averaging only 2.38 goals per game in the first half of the season to 3.20 goals per game following the All-Star break. The improvements were largely due to Nelson and Lee playing on the same line along with defenseman Ryan Pulock’s return to the lineup and multiple forwards stepping up in new roles. Among the factors that turned the offense around, it was Palmieri generating shots and finding the back of the net that added a spark to the offense and gave the team an edge.
Palmieri remains a key forward in the offense, providing a scoring presence from the wing for Barzal or Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s line. His ability to find the back of the net will not only help the team but will likely dictate if the forward unit is going to have a successful year as well.
The Islanders’ prize addition of the offseason. On the first night of the NHL Entry Draft, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello traded the 13th overall pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Alexander Romanov. The move gave the team a left-side defenseman who already had experience playing at the NHL level and at 22 years old, is entering the prime of his career. He is the ideal defenseman to pair with Noah Dobson as a young, reliable skater with great defensive instincts and for the team altogether, he adds a hard-hitting presence to the blue line.
Romanov is an X-factor not just because of his defense and instincts in his own zone, that’s something that is expected. He can set himself apart specifically if he improves at the offensive end of the ice. He is a strong puck-handling defenseman but still needs to improve his shot and overall playmaking from the point.
Romanov has the ability to work on both attributes with the Islanders who unlike the Canadiens last season, look to be one of the competitive teams in the Eastern Conference. Notably, if his shot from the blue line improves, he can and will transform the defensive unit, making it remarkable in all three zones. Furthermore, if he becomes a scoring threat from the point, the Islanders’ offense will leap into the top half of the league next season as they will have two-way defensemen throughout the unit.
Other X-Factors on the Islanders
Two of the young players that can become X-factors are Robin Salo and Aatu Raty. Both prospects aren’t on the roster but with an impressive camp, or if either player joins the team midway through the season, they can set the Islanders apart from the competition. Salo is the defenseman that can round out the unit and become a consistent pairing for Scott Mayfield, while Raty can be the star center that puts the offense over the top.
The Islanders have a deep roster with multiple players that can ultimately be the X-factors in a successful season. With the roster being built on its depth, the team’s success altogether will be determined by the players that can step up and become integral parts of the roster. The upcoming season will test the Islanders and as a result, the players that are the X-factors will ultimately make or break their hopes of reaching the playoffs and competing for the Stanley Cup.
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.