The New York Islanders will enter the 2023-24 season with almost the exact same roster as last year. General manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello has reiterated that he has full belief in his core group and wants to keep it intact. He did just that this summer by extending Scott Mayfield, Semyon Varlamov, Pierre Engvall and Ilya Sorokin. “That was more important for us than anything we could have done to help the team,” Lamoriello said of his offseason extensions. “If we weren’t able to do that, certainly we had other thoughts, but our priority was exactly what transpired.” With a similar roster, the Islanders now have few open spots that need to be figured out.
New York completed the blockbuster trade of the 2022-23 season by acquiring Bo Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 30 and then extending him to an eight-year deal a week later. Horvat is expected to center the first line, moving star forward Mathew Barzal to the right wing and leaving an open spot on the left wing. Since there were no major acquisitions this offseason, the Islanders have a few internal options that can fill that void. Head coach Lane Lambert will have to evaluate who makes the most sense to play with the Islanders’ top unit at training camp. Here’s a look at some of the possible options to fill that spot.
The most obvious choice is captain Anders Lee. Lee was the Islanders’ nominee for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for his on-ice leadership and off-the-ice community contributions. He has been an exceptional leader and has established himself as one of the best power forwards in the league. He and Barzal have played together for the past few seasons, and Lee is a natural goal scorer. He is coming off back-to-back 28-goal campaigns and is a strong power forward who can provide space on that top line. The issue, however, is that it is clear Lee has lost a step.
He was never a great skater to begin with, but last season, he looked noticeably slower. Yes, he produced offensively, but the Islanders may be more inclined to put a younger, faster forward on this top unit to provide more speed. Lee has also had success in the past playing with Brock Nelson. Although it’s unlikely, Lambert may want to keep the two together, along with winger Kyle Palmieri, which would provide a stable second line. The most likely outcome would be that Lee would start the season on the top line and see how it goes from there. If he can contribute another 25-plus goals this season, the Islanders will have one of the stronger top units in the league. The 33-year-old is likely the best option to fill this spot, barring any substantial changes in training camp.
Another player who could take that spot is winger Oliver Wahlstrom. The Islanders have been waiting for the 23-year-old winger to have a breakout season. Wahlstrom was a pending restricted free agent (RFA) who signed a one-year prove-it deal with the Islanders on July 17. He is a very skilled player with a great shot and a big frame that he can use to his advantage. Last season, Wahlstrom only played in 35 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Coming off a major injury is tough, especially for such a young player, but Lamoriello doesn’t have any concerns about him being ready for camp.
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“He will be ready,” Lamoriello said. “He’s started skating, it’s just a matter of getting him where he has to be, but he will be ready for training camp 100%” (from ‘Oliver Wahlstrom’s Role and Future with Islanders is Unclear, NYI Hockey Now, 7/18/23).
If Wahlstrom has a strong camp and proves that he can be relied on to play first-line minutes, he can very well take that spot. It would give the top-six another scorer and provide some balance between the top two lines. Former head coach Barry Trotz would constantly have Wahlstrom in and out of the lineup due to his poor play away from the puck, but if he wants to play on that top line, he has to prove he could be trusted.
Engvall was acquired by the Islanders at the 2023 trade deadline in exchange for a 2024 third-round pick. The team has a major need for speed in their lineup, and that is what Engvall provided. He was a pleasant surprise and helped the Islanders on their run to clinch the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The 27-year-old had five goals and nine points in just 18 games with the team. He found success playing on the second line with Nelson and Palmieri. He fits the Islanders’ style of play and is responsible in his own end, strong away from the puck and has a knack for getting pucks out of the defensive zone quickly. Engvall was rewarded with a big commitment from the Islanders, signing a seven-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $3 million this summer. It shows the trust Lamoriello has in him, and he wants him part of this group for the long term.
When he was first traded to the Islanders, he had the chance to play on the top line for a few games. We got to see his speed early on, and the impact he had on the team. He was excited to have the opportunity to play with Barzal and Horvat off the bat.
“They’re two great players,” Engvall said. “I’m really happy I get to play with them at the start… I see myself as a two-way player but my skating is my biggest asset. I’m really happy to get the chance with those guys” (from ‘Pierre Engvall working with Islanders’ 1st line upon arrival, AMNY, 2/2/23)
Engvall will likely start the season on that second line with Nelson and Palmieri, where he had success, but if Lambert decides to make some changes, he would fit in nicely on that top line. Having responsible two-way players like Engvall and Horvat on that top line will allow Barzal to play his game more, take some risks, and open up the ice. Engvall has incredible speed as well, which will create more scoring chances.
The most likely option here is to see Lee begin the season in his usual first-line left-wing spot. Wahlstrom could make a push with an impressive training camp, but Engvall will likely start on that second line. Why fix what’s not broken? One thing that the Islanders need is contributions throughout the lineup. Regardless of who takes that top-line spot, they need production right away.