After months of silence, New York Islanders general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello finally spoke to the public on Tuesday, June 7. In his press conference, he spoke about how he will be back along with head coach Lane Lambert and provided a rundown on the state of the roster heading into the draft and free agency.
Among the many messages, a common theme from Lamoriello is that the roster will look similar to last year’s group. The Islanders have kept their core together for each of the past five seasons to varying results. Lamoriello saw the First Round series, where they lost in six games to the Carolina Hurricanes, as a reminder that the Islanders are closer to contending than many fans think.
It’s a common theme under Lamoriello. He’s confident in the team that he assembled and will make minimal changes as a result. The problem is that the Islanders can’t return to the same team for another season. Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is trying the same thing again and expecting different results. The Islanders need to make changes this offseason. Even minor tweaks can have a significant impact and help the team compete for the Stanley Cup next year.
Islanders’ Power Play Must Improve
The power play was one of the worst in the NHL last year, scoring only 15.77 percent of their opportunities. Only the Anaheim Ducks and the Philadelphia Flyers had worse power-play units than them. In the playoffs, it was one of the reasons the Hurricanes outmatched the Islanders, as they only scored one goal on the man advantage in the series.
Lamoriello noted the struggles in his press conference and mentioned how the unit needs to return to how it played in the 2021-22 season. That season, the Islanders scored 22.12 percent of their opportunities and were led by Brock Nelson and Anders Lee’s presence near the net as the two skaters combined for 20 goals on the power play. The unit needs to rebound, but the question is what can be done on the ice to help them improve.
The first thing is a change in strategy. The Islanders looked lost on the power play last year with no plan or direction, resulting in a chaotic group that rarely generated effective shots on the net. Next year, they must effectively pass the puck in the offensive zone but also fire shots on the net from the point. Noah Dobson, Ryan Pulock, and Alexander Romanov all have great shots, and the defensemen must fire the puck on goal to create second-chance opportunities near the net.
Along with the defensemen contributing from the point, the Islanders need their primary puck handlers to step up and become more active with the puck. Mathew Barzal missed the second half of the season with an injury, and his absence from the lineup plagued the unit, as he created open shots for his linemates.
However, even when he returns next season, he must change his approach during the power play. Barzal will handle the puck but often hold onto it too long, missing an opportunity to shoot it on the net or find an open skater. Next season, he has to be more aggressive not only as a passer but as a shooter to create more opportunities for the unit.
The Islanders have the players in place to turn the power play into a good, if not great unit. The big things preventing that are the strategy and mindset of some of the skaters. However, after a year of constant failure on the man advantage, the unit looks to step up and improve next year.
Islanders Must Add Top-Six Wing Talent
The priority for Lamoriello is re-signing pending free agents Pierre Engvall, Zach Parise, Scott Mayfield, and Semyon Varlamov. Engvall, who was acquired at the trade deadline, and Parise played integral roles in the forward unit and helped improve the offense, especially in the second half of the season. The question is if they can make enough of a difference to put the Islanders over the top next year. While both skaters helped add depth to the offense, the void is in the top six, especially on the wing, and they wouldn’t fill that need.
The Islanders need to make a splash in the offseason to round out the top six and add a scorer to the wing. The big move Lamoriello can make is acquiring William Nylander from the Toronto Maple Leafs, as he would both create scoring chances for his linemates and find the back of the net himself.
A trade for Nylander would signal that the team is going all in on winning the Cup this year, but the Islanders have other options to address the void on the wing as well. Ivan Barbashev is having a remarkable playoff run with the Vegas Golden Knights and is a pending free agent. Likewise, Max Domi and Tomas Tatar are entering free agency and can add a spark to the middle of the forward unit.
Lamoriello has plenty of avenues to upgrade the top six. While he’ll likely re-sign Engvall and Parise, he needs to make one more significant move to turn the offense into an elite one that can win the Cup. It’s something he’s avoided, but with the Islanders looking to win now, he needs to make a splash to allow the team to contend.
The Fourth Line Must Change
For the second year in a row, the fourth line showed its age. Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin have been a pivotal part of the Islanders’ success in recent years as they’ve carried the checking line and been the team’s best defensive forwards. But in the past two years, the three skaters have battled injuries and notably taken a step back offensively. Moreover, they are three of the older skaters on the team, and it’s starting to affect their play. Cizikas is 31 years old, while Martin and Clutterbuck are 33 and 35, making it look like the fourth line is playing in its final few seasons.
Lamoriello stated that all three players are under contract and that he liked how they played in the first round. However, while they stepped up offensively, they also let the team down in multiple games. Martin took multiple penalties, including one at the end of the first period of Game 4 that resulted in a Hurricanes goal, allowing them to pull away with a convincing 5-2 win.
The fourth line combined for 48 penalty minutes in the first round, which was more than the rest of the team combined. Along with the undisciplined play, they also were constantly a step behind a faster, better-skating Hurricanes team, which prevented the Islanders from controlling possession and the pace of play.
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The bottom line is that the fourth line needs adjustments by the start of next season. The most effective transition for the Islanders is to move Hudson Fasching to the fourth line. After a breakout year, Fasching signed a two-year contract and will be a pivotal part of the forward unit moving forward, and his defensive play most notably makes him a viable checking line option. The other alternatives are promoting one of the prospects to play in that role or drafting a defensive forward in the later rounds of the upcoming draft. Ultimately, the Islanders must pivot from their aging fourth line if they hope to avoid taking a step back next year.
Islanders Defensemen Must Open Up The Offense
The first-round series showed the gap between a good and an elite defensive unit. The Islanders have a group that can limit an opponent from finding scoring chances and create turnovers in the neutral zone in the defensive zone. The Hurricanes have a unit that not only creates turnovers but sets up the offense with outlet passes and opens things up with their playmaking from the point. Their ability to help out the offense at the blue line allowed the Hurricanes to control the series and win it in six games.
The Islanders need their defensemen to step up and make a difference at the point. Dobson scored 13 goals and 36 assists and needs to build off that, becoming a more effective puck handler and playing deeper in the offensive zone. Romanov only scored two goals in his first year with the team and must find his shot next season. Sebastian Aho had a breakout year, becoming a regular on defense, and he’ll hope to build off a season where he scored five goals and 18 assists. Pulock and Adam Pelech are the two best defensemen on the team, but they haven’t made a significant impact at the blue line.
The Islanders have defensemen capable of opening up the offense, but they failed to do so this year, resulting in below average offense that scored only 2.95 goals per game. The forward unit needs to step up, but a big step in the offense improving requires the defensemen to play a greater role in the offensive zone.
Other Things That Must Change With The Islanders
The Islanders must add youth to their roster. The average age was 29.3 this season, and 11 skaters were 30 years old or older. With an aging core, a youth movement is necessary to keep the Islanders competitive.
The hope is that William Dufour, the Islanders’ top forward prospect, is ready to make the NHL roster at some point next season. He played in only one game this year with 6:48 ice time and spent most of the season developing in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Bridgeport Islanders. He has a great shot and can make a big impact on the roster if he becomes a regular, adding a much-needed shooting presence to the wing.
Along with Dufour, the Islanders are hoping that Matthew Maggio and Eetu Liukas are ready to take the next steps in their development. Maggio was the team’s fifth-round draft selection in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and signed an entry-level contract early on in the offseason after a big season with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Liukas was a fifth-round selection in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, and after a big year in Liiga, Finland’s hockey league, he signed an entry-level contract. Both young skaters can make the NHL roster down the road and provide a youthful presence to the forward unit and the roster altogether.
Lamoriello has made it clear that not much will change this offseason and that only a few minor moves might occur. However, the Islanders need to look at the issues that cost them this season and make significant improvements. They have a team built to compete but must change a few things to compete for the Stanley Cup.