The New York Islanders are rolling back their 2021-22 roster to give it another go in 2022-23, with a few, ever so slight tweaks. Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene aren’t returning, and Alexander Romanov and a player to be determined will take their place. Robin Salo will certainly make a case for the third-pair spot next to Scott Mayfield, but there are three other players, Grant Hutton, Dennis Cholowski, and Sebastian Aho, that could make the team’s decision not as straightforward as you’d think. Other than Romanov, four players – and head coach Lane Lambert – can make or break the Islanders’ 2022-23 season.
For the last few seasons, countless articles have been written about whether or not Anthony Beauvillier can have a breakout regular season. Since eclipsing the 20-goal mark in 2017-18, his production – specifically his points per game – has dropped significantly. He was an integral part of the Islanders’ 2020 and 2021 run to the Stanley Cup Semifinals but hasn’t seemed to be able to find the consistency needed to be a real force in the Islanders’ top six yet.
After a serious down year in 2021-22, with a shooting percentage at just 7.8% compared to 13.8% and 13.6% in 2020-21 and 2019-20 respectively, he’s bound to bounce back in the coming season. However, a “bounce-back” season isn’t what the Islanders need out of Beauvillier; he needs to be a player the team can depend on to put up points all season.
If Beauvllier can step up, he could be a player that puts the Islanders over the hump and do more than simply compete in a crowded Metropolitan Division. He may find his best opportunity next to star forward Mathew Barzal, eliminating all excuses for him to succeed. If he can’t, it’ll be difficult for them to stay afloat and even tougher for general manager Lou Lamoriello to keep him around as a core piece of the forward group.
Looking at Semyon Varlamov’s 2021-22 numbers, specifically the straightforward wins and losses, his 10-17-2 record is a huge reason the Islanders couldn’t fight their way back into the playoff conversation. Like the team in front of him, there are plenty of valid reasons this past season was difficult, coming off of an injury chief among them.
For the 2022-23 season, the Islanders need Varlamov to return to his numbers from both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, 19-14-6 in 39 starts and 19-11-4 in 35 starts respectively. His partner, youngster Ilya Sorokin, has proven he can carry the majority of games moving forward, starting 52 last season to Varlamov’s 29 and doing so in spectacular style considering the team in front of him on most nights. The Islanders would ideally be aiming to start Varlamov about the same number of games in the upcoming season as they did in 2021-22, in and around 30 games, which is a manageable number.
They do, however, need him to win just over half of those games and steal some extra points in a few others, a sticking point to the Islanders’ success last season. If he can have a bounce-back season, adding eight to 10 wins to the Islanders’ record, it’s not difficult to place them right in the playoff conversation. If not, even with an uptick in scoring, they will likely find themselves on the outside looking in once again.
The big acquisition of the summer of Lamoriello, Romanov could have a huge impact on the backend next to Noah Dobson. The two young defenders, at just 22 years old, have the ability to provide a very well-balanced tandem for Lambert to utilize right behind the veteran pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. Romanov is a hard-hitting defender who worked on the offensive side of his game this offseason, which could complement Dobson quite well. He has a lot of guts and doesn’t seem to back down from a physical challenge in and around his own net, adding a nice bit of bite to the Islanders’ defensive group.
If Romanov can take a step forward this season and help solidify the Islanders’ top-four, the team will be in excellent shape. If not, there will continue to be a hole on the left side. Chara, partnered with Dobson for a good chunk of the season, was exposed on most nights and couldn’t seem to keep up with the team’s structure. If Romanov can’t prove himself to be exponentially better, the team will be in trouble.
Islander fans clamored for a first-line, money-in-the-bank scorer this offseason and were left shaking their head. But what if Oliver Wahlstrom could save the day? He took a step back last season versus the 2020-21 campaign in production and shooting percentage, but showed us he does have the ability to be dangerous around the net, and not just with his shot. This play against the Ottawa Senators was a glimpse into Wahlstrom’s confidence in tight around the crease.
It’s going to be plays like this, in addition to finding more opportunities to shoot the puck, that is going to make him and the Islanders successful this season. What really might set things off is finding the back of the net on the powerplay. Wahlstrom’s been great at five on five, nearing 10 goals a season at even strength the last two seasons, and if he can score on the man advantage, the Islanders might find themselves in the win column a few more times. If not, the dream of a young scorer will continue for Isles fans.
With much of the roster the same, save for Romanov and potentially Salo, Hutton, or Cholowski, the biggest make-or-break person around the Islanders is head coach Lane Lambert. While it’s expected the team won’t be completely transformed, his goal must be to create some balance in the team’s on-ice strategy. The defense was a force to be reckoned with during Barry Trotz’s first three seasons as head coach, but a glaring issue was the lack of offense due to the apparent short leash on the team’s forwards.
If either Beauvillier or Wahlstrom are going to help take this team to another level, or any player for that matter, it’s going to be because Lambert gives his players a little more leash while keeping his foot down on the defensive game. And it may just be more of a “strike while the iron is hot” situation for the Islanders’ offense; not overwhelming the other team with shots and offense, but instead finding ways to capitalize more often off the rush.
Whether you think Lambert is a new enough voice or not, it’s what the team has right now, and if he can help them get better on both sides of the puck, the Islanders might start to look like themselves again. On the other hand, it’ll be a really tough look for Lamoriello if Lambert falls flat in his first season, on top of not being able to land a top free agent forward.
With camp underway, and the recent quote from Lamoriello stating that youngsters Aatu Raty and William DuFour will likely not make the NHL roster, the team in front of us, save for line combinations and the third pairing defender, is set. It won’t take much for the Islanders to beat their preseason expectations, at least off Long Island, but the rubber needs to meet the road, especially early in the season.
Jon Zella is a 31-year-old, Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.