The New York Islanders are struggling on defense to start the 2022-23 season. They’ve allowed 18 goals in six games and 12 in their last three, all losses. The Islanders also look like a different team, allowing more scoring chances against and effective shots on net.
Under former head coach Barry Trotz, strong defensive play carried the team. So far, under first-year head coach Lane Lambert, that hasn’t been the case with a lot of defensive issues costing the Islanders and making them worse overall.
The Islanders are also worse from a disciplined standpoint. With Trotz, they played a safe game and avoided making big mistakes. Often, this would leave the defensemen chipping the puck out of the defensive zone instead of carrying the puck to the blue line. Likewise, the forwards would chip the puck into the offensive zone and chase the play, forcing a turnover to start up the offense. The strategy ultimately left the Islanders with an offense that struggled, but that also allowed fewer goals, something general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello was hoping would change under Lambert.
This season, the Islanders are more aggressive in handling the puck, especially in the defensive zone. The defensemen passing the puck into the neutral zone has helped out the offense, as in the team’s 7-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 15. Unfortunately, it’s also led to many of the team’s mistakes as the defensemen aggressively pass the puck to the blue line rather than chip the puck out of the zone only to see the opposition intercept the passes and find quick scoring chances.
Along with the more aggressive approach, the Islanders have made more errors than they did in previous seasons. Against the Florida Panthers, the Islanders allowed the first goal in the first 40 seconds of the first period largely because of a turnover near the net, which allowed Anton Lundell to quickly fire the puck past a surprised Semyon Varlamov
In Florida, the Islanders’ defensemen drew a turnover but then quickly gave the puck away to the opposition, which allowed for quick scoring chances against, and the opportunity to catch the goaltenders off guard or out of position.
Lambert’s Aggressive Style
The Islanders hiring Lambert from within the organization implied that the changes wouldn’t be drastic compared to hiring an outsider. Instead, the team looked only slightly different from the Trotz-led one, with a stronger emphasis on offense. Six games into the season, the Islanders are generating more shots on net, and their defensemen are joining the rush, occasionally skating deep into the offensive zone. While this has allowed them to thrive offensively, with Noah Dobson, Scott Mayfield, and Robin Salo all scoring two goals this season, it’s also had its negatives.
Against teams that can defend the rush, the Islanders are often caught out of position. They will try to gash a team with speed and allow their defensemen to help out the offense but suddenly have only one skater available to defend a rush the other way. Furthermore, Lambert’s aggressive style puts more pressure on the goaltenders, forcing them to make more saves. Granted, this is part of the growing pains of a team transitioning to a fast-paced, more offensive-minded style, but early on in the season, it’s cost them and left them with a 2-4 record.
Aho and Salo
One of the questions entering the season was which defenseman would join the NHL roster, Salo or Sebastian Aho. Salo won the job out of training camp and started the season playing alongside Mayfield. He struggled defensively and, understandably, spent the first few games acclimating to the NHL. However, he provided a high upside to the roster as a two-way player, notably scoring two goals in the win over the Ducks.
However, Salo didn’t play in either of the games in Florida and instead was assigned to the American Hockey League (AHL) Bridgeport Islanders. Aho started the two games and remained two steps behind, allowing the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Panthers forwards to find plenty of scoring chances. Against the Panthers, in particular, Aho was on the ice for two of the three goals, including a first-period goal when he failed to get in position for Eetu Luostarinen‘s shot.
Between the two defensemen, Lambert eventually has to decide which one he wants for the full season. Out of training camp, it looked like Salo would be the one, making the demotion a head-scratching decision. Salo can round out the defense and make it one of the best in the NHL, and despite the struggles this season, his ceiling is high.
How the Islanders Turn Their Defense Around
The first thing that will improve the defense is fixing the issues mentioned above. The Islanders need to cut down on mistakes, and despite playing a more aggressive game, they must remain sound defensively. Likewise, Lambert has to make a decision between Aho and Salo and stick with one of the two defensemen for the rest of the season.
However, the Islanders also need more consistency from the roster and the coaching staff. Many players will have a big play on one shift but then cost the team a few minutes later and, similarly, both goaltenders have had a rough start. The coaching staff has also prevented the team from settling into the season, notably by mixing up forward line combinations and defensive pairings.
The Islanders are led by their defense, which is the most talented part of their roster. If the team is going to turn around their season, it will be because of their defense leading the way, keeping games low scoring but also playing a major role in the offense.
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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 and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.