The New York Islanders were officially eliminated from playoff contention following a 4-2 loss at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs, marking an unfortunate end to a season with high hopes and a string of seasons with significant growth and potential. Following back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Final, falling to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, general manager Lou Lamoriello continued with small adjustments and changes during the 2021 offseason. Compounded by a difficult early schedule and bouts with COVID-19, what worked the previous three summers fell short during the 2021-22 season. Now, with playoff hopes dashed, they can begin looking ahead to an offseason of change, on and off the ice.
Related: Islanders Need to Help Barzal Develop Into a True Superstar
Islanders Roster Retool
Lamoriello has a lot of questions to consider this offseason. From moving players and contracts with big price tags, opening up salary cap and roster space, to finding replacements and upgrades to take the team to the next level and complement existing core pieces, we may see the most significant changes to the roster in his time with the team.
Goaltending Solid for Islanders
Between the pipes, discussions and arguments are cluttering timelines across social media about what the Islanders should do moving forward. Ilya Sorokin continues to shine despite the Islanders’ poor play overall this season, sparking Vezina Trophy talk that likely won’t come due to the team not making the playoffs. Sorokin’s partner, Semyon Varlamov, has one year left at $5 million, understandably drawing attention as not only a cap dump but an asset to a team looking to upgrade in net.
The issue is, can the Islanders afford to give up such a critical one-two punch in net? While Sorokin continues to grow into a true number-one goalie, Varlamov’s numbers aren’t anything to sneeze at, and more than enough to be a backup to Sorokin for at least another season. We saw firsthand how valuable the two-goalie system was during the last two playoff runs, and in a league where every point counts in the regular season, having both goalies able to win you games during an 82-game grind is imperative. The Islanders also lack an even remotely-capable replacement, at least not heading into the 2022-23 campaign. A safe bet would be to run this duo back again and re-evaluate after next season. Perhaps Varlamov comes back on a team-friendly deal to continue his run as Sorokin’s backup?
Islanders Need to Upgrade the Backend
Despite Noah Dobson’s incredible season in the offensive zone, there’s a noticeable drop in play from the Islanders’ top pair, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, to Dobson and 45-year-old Zdeno Chara. The need to find a solid defender to give Dobson the latitude he needs to thrive on offense is nearly as critical as finding an upgrade to the team’s first line.
The choices on the unrestricted free agent market won’t excite anyone, which points to an equal or greater chance Lamoriello seeks to do so in a trade. Jakob Chychrun‘s name was thrown around as someone the Islanders could target, or a player like him locked up for a few years, but would that be a good match next to Dobson? That’s a good question. It leaves the door open for another one of Lamoriello’s patented “I never would have thought of that” moves. The difference this time is that it cannot simply be an interesting choice; he needs this one to land in order to keep fans on his side.
This isn’t the only offseason obstacle the Islanders have on defense. The third pair, which currently consists solely of Scott Mayfield, is far from solidified. Andy Greene could easily return as the team’s seventh defenseman, splitting time with 23-year-old Robin Salo, but can Salo regain the trust of Barry Trotz this offseason and in training camp after a less than an ideal season with the Bridgeport Soundtigers in the coach’s eyes?
Can Greene handle the majority of games in his age 40 season? Many would hope that’s not the case, especially when upgrading the team above the crease should be the priority this summer. The good thing is, looking for a steady, left-handed defender to compliment Mayfield is a lot easier than finding a partner for Dobson. Could they look outside the organization? Who fits the bill for full-time third-pair minutes in Bridgeport? Parker Wotherspoon has had a good season offensively and could set a new career-high in points by the season’s end. Outside of that, perhaps the undersized Mitchell Vande Sompel, but given his up and down numbers that doesn’t seem likely. The answer for Lamoriello will almost certainly come from outside the organization if it isn’t a Greene-Salo mix alongside Mayfield.
In a tale as old as time, the Islanders need to add a scoring threat – or two – next to their number-one center. This time, it’s Mathew Barzal, whose 2021-22 season has seemed a bit out of character after a breakout 2020-21 campaign that saw him take a huge step forward as a scorer. The tenacious Zach Parise has stepped up in a big way to give that first line some life, but that isn’t sustainable. Oliver Wahlstrom was talked about last summer as an option on Barzal’s right side, which hasn’t worked out as well as many would have liked. In fact, Wahlstrom was a healthy scratch for two games recently in place of the oft-scratched Kieffer Bellows. Does Lamoriello need to find two wingers for Barzal next season too?
Palmieri has been thriving next to J.G. Pageau on the third line, and Parise would be a great addition there next season as well. Could Wahlstrom fit in with Anders Lee and Brock Nelson? Where does that leave the inconsistent Anthony Beauvillier or lightning rod Josh Bailey? Bailey’s $5 million cap hit for the next two seasons has been on the tip of fans’ tongues for Lamoriello to move this summer to open up funds for first-line wingers and a defender. Beauvillier has also been in the conversation as a mid-tier forward the Islanders may be interested in moving out to help bring in a second-pair defenseman.
“If I was the Islanders, I’m trying to move out one of the forwards and I’m trying to turn that money into a D,” a league source told The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz before the 2021 trade deadline. “They’ve got a ton of forwards signed for that mid-tier money, and they’ve got to move one of those guys out to get a defenseman.”(From “Will the Islanders trade Josh Bailey or Anthony Beauvillier for a defenseman? What we’re hearing at the deadline, 2.0,” The Athletic, 3/19/2022.)
So if Lamoriello moves one or both Bailey and Beauvillier, it could create as many as three openings in the top six, a difficult hill to climb with only so much money available and some very specific needs. Dobson and Bellows also need to be retained as restricted free agents this summer, and with an eventual contract for Barzal on the horizon along with the need to sign up to four players this offseason, Lamoriello is going to have to pull out his best moves in years to get the Islanders back into contention while staying under the cap.
Islanders Coaching Strategy Adjustment
The Islanders are once again a top defensive team in the NHL this season despite missing the playoffs. They’re also one of the lower scoring teams, both a centerpiece of the Islanders’ past three successful seasons. And while this has worked, it does need to be tweaked in order for the team to make some noticeable progress next season. Some of this has to do with the personnel Trotz has to work with, but a lot of it is the system in place.
The current players recognize that system and understand that offense isn’t going to be the main part of the team’s strategy, but as the scoring around the league trends up, the Islanders need to find a way to put the puck in the net with the energy they use to keep it out of their own.
“We’re not gonna be a high-generating team for the most part,” Trotz said earlier this season. “Our game is a structured, defending game” (From “Islanders lament near-misses as offensive woes keep mounting”, the New York Post, 1/27/2022).
Again, this strategy is fine, but if the team is going to win games 3-2, they need to bring up their goals-for-per-game by nearly a quarter of a goal next season and do it consistently. As much as the Islanders have shut out other teams this season – Sorokin has seven – and won 2-0 or 3-0, they’ve also been on the receiving end of barn-burning games. Consistency at both ends of the ice will be a huge part of how or if this team can get back into the playoffs next season. Much of that, as stated previously, certainly has to do with personnel changes this offseason, but Trotz may also need to find ways to get more out of his team offensively regardless of who’s on the bench in front of him.
As Islander fans cope with the team being out of this year’s playoffs, they’ll be waiting with bated breath for Lamoriello and the rest of management to right the wrongs of this past season. All is not lost, however; we saw the Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks rebound after missing the playoffs, and even the Pittsburgh Penguins had down years between Cups. The Islanders are far from a Stanley Cup favorite, but if this team can retool appropriately, a lot of the right pieces are there for them to be right back in the conversation come October. For now, we will just have to wait and see what happens.