The New York Islanders have only played 28 games and remain in last place in the Metropolitan Division with only 10 wins and 26 points. The Islanders turned a corner in their recent games, winning five of their last eight. But the inconsistent schedule and tough slate of games ahead will result in a tough climb in the standings, with the team hoping to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
Throughout this season, the Islanders have seen some skaters step up and emerge as the best players. Some injuries and underachieving players have required players to take on a bigger role on the ice. But looking ahead, a handful of key contributors will be essential to the Islanders’ success in the remainder of the season.
It’s been a rocky start for Mathew Barzal, with plenty of obstacles early on in the season. The lack of stability on the top line, with head coach Barry Trotz and the Islanders coaching staff searching for a replacement for Jordan Eberle, resulted in offensive struggles, culminating in a six-game stretch with only one goal and no assists. In addition, while on a six-game point streak, Barzal missed three games and two weeks as he was placed on the COVID-19 protocols list.
Despite the obstacles, Barzal remains the Islanders’ top scorer and one of the best players on the roster with a team-leading 15 assists and six goals, the fourth-most goals on the roster. Moreover, Barzal has continued to prove that he can create quick scoring chances on odd-man rushes and with speed in the offensive zone, creating space for the rest of the shift to find open shots on net.
Barzal’s success is pivotal to the Islanders’ push for the playoffs, and his performances on the top line will help the struggling offense altogether, a unit that is scoring only 2.29 goals per game. Him continuing to carry the puck into the offensive zone and allowing Oliver Wahlstrom, Kyle Palmieri, or whoever is on the other wing to find open shots on the opposite faceoff circle will help the Islanders build off their current hot streak and continue to make up ground in the standings.
Islanders captain Ander Lee is starting to find his spot in the offensive zone and take advantage of the opposing defenses and goaltenders. In the last eight games, Lee has scored six goals, and along with forward Brock Nelson, is tied for the team lead with 10 goals on the season. The top-line forward is finding loose pucks near the net in the center of the offensive zone and finishing scoring chances, allowing the Islanders to establish a strong offensive zone presence and open up the ice for the other forwards on the shift and the defensemen from the blue line.
The Islanders’ offensive production dropped significantly last season once Lee went on the long-term injury list with a torn ACL, with the coaching staff desperately shuffling the lines to find a forward that could complement Barzal’s skillset. Lee back in the lineup reminds the Islanders and opposing defenses of the importance of a veteran forward who can finish scoring chances and take advantage of rebounds near the net.
At 21 years old, Oliver Wahlstrom is one of the best young forwards on the Islanders and has emerged as one of the best scorers on the team, with eight goals and seven assists this season. Despite averaging only 13:14 ice time, Wahlstrom has proven he can help create a scoring chance in the offensive zone and play on any line, whether it’s benefiting from Barzal and Lee on the top line or alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Zach Parise on the later shift for the team.
Wahlstrom has taken his accurate shooting and speed on the wing to the next level this season, finding open shots by the faceoff circle and picking apart the opposing goaltender. For a struggling offense, the 21-year-old forward allows the team to have versatility on their lines and find favorable matchups against opposing defensive units. Wahlstrom continuing to have a great season will ultimately allow the Islanders to pile on the wins. More importantly, finding consistency in the offensive zone will be necessary for the young forward, with a current five-game scoreless streak and a ten-game scoreless streak earlier in the season hurting the offensive production from one of the best scorers on the team.
Noah Dobson has stepped up this season and helped the Islanders’ defensive unit remain one of the best in the NHL despite losing Ryan Pulock for multiple weeks with a lower-body injury. Along with Adam Pelech, Dobson has been one of the best defensemen with 1.7 defensive point shares and 54 blocked shots. He’s limited opposing forwards in the neutral zone with great skating to force turnovers and control the puck in the defensive zone.
This season, however, the Islanders have seen Dobson emerge as their best two-way defenseman and a scoring presence from the point, helping open up a struggling offense and create scoring opportunities. The 22-year-old blueliner has scored five goals and added nine assists, both of which lead the defensive unit. In an offseason where the Islanders traded away Nick Leddy, one of their best two-way defenseman, the team needed to find a replacement on the defensive unit that could help turn defense into offense and create scoring opportunities in the offensive zone. Not only has the front office found that defenseman in Dobson, but they now have a proven young skater that will impact the unit for years to come.
Other Islanders Who Will Lead the Playoff Push
Along with the skaters on the Islanders, the goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin has been remarkable this season and continues to carry the team to victories. Varlamov and Sorokin have combined for a .920 save percentage and a 2.55 goals-against average on 904 shots. Their ability to split starts and give the team great performances on a nightly basis will allow them to remain competitive this season.
Additionally, Pageau and other line production remain integral to the Islanders’ success. The scoring presence throughout the forward unit allows the team to maintain pressure on opposing defenses and find the back of the net. Pageau only has five goals and five assists this season but has created scoring chances for his shift and will continue to allow the Islanders to find open shots in the offensive zone as he draws defensemen. Ultimately, the team is built on their deep roster, which has led them to consecutive Stanley Cup Semifinal appearances. And their depth will help the team rebound and make a push to the playoffs.
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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, looking at general topics from potential cities for NHL relocation to arena traditions throughout the league. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.