The New York Islanders are entering the 2022-23 season with the hopes of bouncing back but more importantly, competing for the Stanley Cup. After missing the playoffs last season, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello kept the roster together and the team had a quiet offseason as a result, a frustrating yet understandable outcome for fans. With the lack of movement, a lot of pressure will be on the current roster to prove that last season in particular was an outlier for an otherwise great team.
The roster is far from a depleted one with many veteran players on all three lines. While the Islanders don’t have the star power or flashy names like other teams, they have a team with depth to compete in a competitive Metropolitan Division next year. However, a few players are essential to their success and will be pivotal in allowing them to have a big season in 2022-23.
5. Noah Dobson
The argument can be made that Noah Dobson is the most essential player to the Islanders’ success this season. After a breakout 2021-22 campaign where he scored 13 goals and 38 assists while contributing 4.1 defensive point shares and 154 blocked shots, the Islanders re-signed the young defenseman to a three-year deal this offseason.
Dobson proved last season that he is an elite young defenseman that can impact all three zones. Along with great skating which allowed him to defend opponents on the rush, he could both create turnovers and handle the puck into the offensive zone, something the rest of the defense struggled with last year. Furthermore, he became the top threat at the point with his willingness to shoot the puck, which separated him from the rest of the unit and made him the primary power play defenseman for the Islanders.
This year, the 22-year-old defenseman is expected to take another big step and continue to add depth to a strong defensive unit. Particularly, Dobson will be asked to take on a larger role with the team, continuing to play the point on the power play while accumulating more ice time. With the Islanders acquiring Alexander Romanov, the team can anticipate a young pairing that adds speed to the blue line and ultimately carries them throughout the season.
4. Brock Nelson
The Islanders leading goal scorer from last season was Brock Nelson, who scored 37 goals while also adding 22 assists. He generally has been a pivotal part of the top-six of the forward unit, but last season saw him step up and fuel what became the team’s top line, playing alongside Anders Lee and Anthony Beauvillier in the second half of the season.
The 30-year-old center scored a career-high in goals but stood out last year by leading his line. Nelson both set up scoring chances in the middle of the ice while he also found the back of the net with quick shots in the offensive zone. A lot of the success can be credited to the line change with Josh Bailey being replaced by Lee, a finisher near the net. However, Nelson’s overall production is what helped turn the offense around as the team averaged 3.13 goals per game after the All-Star break.
Nelson was one of the bright spots from last season and he remains an essential part of the Islanders roster with the team hoping to bounce back. The hope is that he can build off the under-the-radar 30-goal season and remain the elite playmaker the team needs in the top six of the forward unit.
3. Ryan Pulock
Ryan Pulock was hurt for the majority of the games to start the season, missing multiple weeks with a lower-body injury. His absence on a night-to-night basis wasn’t felt immediately but as the Islanders continued to struggle, it became clear that they needed their top pairing defenseman back. Among all the players the Islanders lost last season to injury, the one that was irreplaceable was Pulock, who during the successful seasons became a staple of the right side of the defense.
The defensive unit remains one of the best in the NHL and Pulock highlights the strength of the team. Playing alongside Adam Pelech, the duo has been remarkable at halting some of the best offenses in the league notably by keeping up with them in the neutral zone and on the rush. Furthermore, Pulock’s defensive zone instincts have set him apart as he blocked 130 shots, second-most on the team, in only 56 games last season. The shot-blocking attribute is one that fans saw firsthand in the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinal, as he made a game-saving stop to help the Islanders win Game 3.
While Pelech didn’t make the list, he receives an honorable mention as the perfect partner for Pulock. Pelech had a remarkable year for the Islanders, leading the team with 5.7 defensive point shares while also blocking 128 shots. Once again, the Islanders will need their best left-side defenseman to play at an elite level next season and help carry the top pairing for one of the league’s best defense corps.
2. Mathew Barzal
Mathew Barzal enters the final season of his contract as he is a restricted free agent at the end of the 2022-23 season. The Islanders will likely re-sign their star forward with the hope that he finishes his career on Long Island as one of the faces of the franchise. While Lamoriello will have his hands full both before the season starts and next offseason to get a deal done, all eyes will be on Barzal throughout the year and how he performs on the ice.
Last year, the Islanders saw what happens when Barzal is asked to lead a line by himself. Jordan Eberle was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the NHL Expansion Draft while Lee moved to the Nelson-led line and the absence of both players caused Barzal to struggle. Granted, he still led the team in points with 59, sharing the lead with Nelson, but his point total was the lowest of his career in a full 82-game season. Without a shooter like Eberle and a finisher like Lee, his production wasn’t the same and as a result, first-year head coach Lane Lambert has to find the right forwards to play alongside his top center for the team to succeed.
Barzal’s success will dictate how well the Islanders’ offense will perform and whether they will consistently play with multiple potent scoring lines. In addition, a career year from Barzal can be the difference between the Islanders making the playoffs and making a run for the Stanley Cup, as he can be the top-line scorer for a resurgent offense.
1. Ilya Sorokin
Ilya Sorokin made his mark as an elite young goaltender last season and in a difficult year, he helped carry the Islanders. With a .925 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.40 goals-against average (GAA) on 1,643 shots, the 27-year-old emerged as the primary starter and provided stability in the net.
The Islanders will likely still use a goaltending duo next year with both Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov splitting starts. Lamoriello has emphasized the importance of two great goaltenders on the roster and keeping both players well-rested will remain a pivotal part of the team’s strategy. That being said, Sorokin taking another big step can put the team over the top. In his third season with the team, he might be able to enter the Vezina Trophy conversation and give the roster an edge on a nightly basis.
Moreover, Sorokin can be the player that propels the Islanders to the Stanley Cup. In the playoffs, Sorokin will be asked to outduel some of the best goaltenders in the game, especially when the games slow down and become lower scoring. Great goaltenders like Andrei Vasilevskiy, Martin Brodeur, and Patrick Roy have proven that they can carry their teams in the playoffs and the Islanders hope they have that type of elite starter in Sorokin for a potential Cup run.
Other Islanders That Are Essential to Success
Along with the top two centers, Jean-Gabriel Pageau has proven that he is a crucial part of the Islanders’ success. Pageau is a center for the third line and not only adds scoring depth to the team but as a great two-way player helps add to the defense in the middle of the ice.
Another forward that will play a crucial role in the team’s success is Lee. The Islanders captain continuing to find the back of the net from the slot and finishing scoring chances in the crease will remain a staple in the offense. Likewise, he has shown in recent seasons that he can play well on both the Barzal and Nelson-led lines, making him one of the more versatile goal scorers on the team.
Ultimately, the Islanders have a roster that is carried by its depth. While the plus side is that the team has multiple players that can fuel victories, the negatives were seen firsthand last season, where underachieving players and injuries left the Islanders out of the playoffs. The upcoming season will test the entirety of the roster as they face a tough Metropolitan Division and a much-improved Eastern Conference, making the star players an essential part of the team’s success.
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.