The New York Islanders had a great end to the decade and an impressive 2019 calendar year under head coach Barry Trotz and general manager Lou Lamoriello. In 2019, the Islanders went 52-24-6, tying a franchise record set in 1978 and matched in 1982, putting them in some good company in the standings. For perspective, the St. Louis Blues had 56 wins in the last calendar year, the most in the NHL.
The Islanders had a gutsy win against the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals to close out the decade, but the Islanders have some things they’ll want to improve on in 2020, on and off the ice.
Upgrade the Offense
The Islanders’ young defensive corps has led the way the last two seasons and, despite having a thin prospect pool in this regard (which we’ll get to later), there isn’t too much to worry about on this front in the near future. The NHL-ready offense, however, is a different story. Outside of soon-to-be two-time NHL All-Star Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson, the Islanders lack someone to ride shotgun with Anders Lee and Barzal on the top line.
That’s not to say Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Anthony Beauvillier aren’t contributing; they’re doing a fairly decent job behind Nelson and Barzal. But when push comes to shove, the lack of offensive punch has been a killer for this team at times. Even with everyone healthy, save for Cal Clutterbuck, Trotz continues to shuffle the lines in search of some chemistry. The trade market has been quiet outside of a few trades earlier this month and, as we well know, Lamoriello makes sure his talks are kept under wraps, so there’s no real way to know what’s happening behind closed doors.
There are options inside and outside the organization, though a number of forwards within the organization have been given a shot earlier this season, with the exception of Josh Ho-Sang, proving they need more seasoning in the American Hockey League. This helps push the point that the Islanders need to add NHL-ready help up-front, and soon. Whether Lou makes a move at or before this upcoming trade deadline or takes another shot at a big-name unrestricted free agent this summer, the Islanders need to (finally) upgrade the offense in 2020.
Ride Semyon Varlamov
The Islanders are one of a few teams that are truly utilizing a tandem goalie setup, with Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss, and Robin Lehner last season, setting the standard of success under this model. And while this has largely worked over the last season and a half, it may be time to ride Varlamov. Both goalies have great numbers, but Varlamov’s victories have come against tougher competition.
With an upcoming break in the schedule, which includes the All-Star Game on Jan. 25, Varlamov will have an opportunity to rest before the push towards the playoffs. Even if Varlamov is added to the All-Star Game for the injured Joonas Korpisalo, he’ll have a few days off during the NHL’s mandated five-day break in January. As long as he doesn’t injure himself during the All-Star Game like a former Islander goalie, the couple of days spent in St. Louis shouldn’t slow him down. Following the break, it may be good for Varlamov to get more games in heading into the playoffs after a fairly light load to start the season, which will allow him to build momentum.
Close Out Games in Regulation
This season, the NHL made a change to its tie-breaker rules. Beginning in 2019-20, this first tiebreaker is the number of games won in regulation. This wouldn’t have affected the Islanders last season, but, as of early January, it’s a situation the Islanders need to keep an eye on.
Currently, the Islanders have 16 regulation wins. This is the second-lowest of all teams in playoff position (as of Jan. 4), only one ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers. Winning games in overtime is obviously still important to collect points and avoid the tiebreaker situation the best they can. But having the ability to score an extra goal or two before switching to a tighter defensive game would give them a huge advantage moving forward.
Add Prospects on Defense
The Islanders have a decent pool of offensive prospects, specifically in the AHL, which includes Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows, and even Ho-Sang. On defense, the pool of soon-to-be-ready NHLers is much more shallow, exposed further by the recent season-ending injury to Adam Pelech.
Aside from the hole that Pelech’s injury leaves on the Islanders’ back-end for the remainder of the season – his average time on ice per game of 21:08 is second among all Islanders skaters and is second on the team in shorthanded time – the larger view of the situation shows an Islanders organization without many NHL ready options on defense. Thomas Hickey, who was sent down to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers at the start of the 2019-20 season, would have been the ideal call-up, but an injury in November has put him on the shelf, creating an opportunity for Sebastian Aho.
The 19-year-old Noah Dobson has been played sparingly this season. Even when he’s in the lineup, he’s averaging under 13 minutes per game. Dobson and Aho will probably split time in the lineup, with Aho, the older (23) and left-handed defender, likely getting in a few more games. With the need to add a top-winger and possibly a third-line center before this season’s trade deadline in February, this will be what the Islanders coaching staff has to work with until Hickey returns from his injury.
With the Islanders on the verge of becoming a real playoff threat, it’ll be interesting to see what Lamoriello does with the Islanders’ roster in the calendar year 2020. We know what Trotz can do with virtually any roster, but adding a few pieces and riding a hot goaltender could take this team to the next level.