The New York Islanders are looking to have a big bounce-back season after missing the playoffs last year. The 2021-22 season saw a handful of players either take a step back or underachieve, and for the 2022-23 season, those players will be pivotal to the team’s success. Whether it’s Anthony Beauvillier or Oliver Wahlstrom on the wing or Ryan Pulock at the blue line, the Islanders have the players who can put the team over the top and make the season one to remember.
The skater who can most notably make or break the 2022-23 season for the Islanders is Mathew Barzal. This season, he can have an 80-point season to not only cap off the final year of his current contract on a high note, but cement his place as an elite player and the best forward on the team. However, Barzal, who showed his limitations last year, can continue to struggle and hinder the Islanders’ offense in the process.
In his five full seasons with the team, Barzal has proven he is one of the best skaters in the league and has the skills to carry the offense if needed. With first-year head coach Lane Lambert behind the bench, it will be pivotal for the team to help out Barzal and optimize his skillset. What are some of the things the Islanders can do to help him out? For starters, it’s important to look at where his limitations are and the complementary pieces needed for the 25-year-old center.
A Shooter on Barzal’s Wing
Last year, the Islanders saw firsthand what the absence of a shooter on the wing does to Barzal production. Jordan Eberle was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, leaving the team without one of its best scorers for the 2021-22 season. Eberle particularly had strong offensive zone instincts to find open ice and, with a great shot, find the back of the net, taking advantage of Barzal’s ability to draw skaters and create scoring chances.
Without Eberle, Barzal’s production took a dip and the offense altogether struggled. While the Islanders rebounded in the second half of last season, Barzal wasn’t the same elite playmaker, scoring only 15 goals while distributing 44 assists. The team had a quiet offseason where they didn’t add any forwards to the roster, so finding a sharpshooter to play on the top line remains a high priority.
The question is which forwards on the team can be that shooter for Barzal? Wahlstrom is an intriguing option if he becomes a regular top-six forward but has yet to make his mark in the offense, making this year a pivotal year for him as well. Kyle Palmieri, meanwhile, seems like the most viable option, as a veteran forward with a great shot and good scoring instincts. Otherwise, the Islanders would have to find a skater who can either step up or establish themself as a shooter, like Beauvillier, who is also looking to rebound from last season.
A lot of Barzal’s success will depend on the skaters around him who can help form an elite top line for the offense. Likewise, some of the success he can experience will revolve around his ability to tap into some of his strengths as a skater.
Barzal’s Willingness to Shoot The Puck
Last year, Barzal had 161 shots on goal, third most on the team but a drop from the previous seasons as he averaged only 2.2 shots on goal per game, his lowest average since the 2018-19 season. The drop in shots isn’t a coincidence considering Barzal’s style of play. Oftentimes, he’ll be the primary puck handler and skate with the puck in the offensive zone hoping to find an open skater for a shot on the net. However, with his skating ability, he can single-handedly create open shots on the net but instead chooses to dance around with the puck and wait for a better scoring chance.
In a new system, Barzal will find success if he takes more shots and is a more aggressive player in the offensive zone. Granted, a more aggressive approach will result in a worse shooting percentage and more turnovers, leaving the Islanders with worse possession numbers. However, if Barzal plays with a shooter’s mentality, it will pay off tenfold as he’ll constantly find the back of the net and create second-chance shots for the other skaters on the ice.
Barzal has a great shot and it’s one that if he hones into, can result in a 30-goal season, something he has yet to achieve in his career. His shot is one of his best attributes, but, unfortunately, he prefers to be a distributor first and a shooter second. This season, the hope is that he becomes a well-rounded skater, both creating open shots for other skaters and finding the back of the net himself, something Brock Nelson was able to do last year on the way to a 37-goal season.
Lambert & the Need for Speed
There are a lot of questions surrounding Lambert and how he’ll differentiate himself from Barry Trotz, who was fired after four seasons with the Islanders. Under Trotz, the Islanders were a defensive-minded team that could win low-scoring games and the expectation is that the team will remain strong in the defensive end of the ice. However, considering how the offense struggled last year, averaging only 2.79 goals per game, the expectation is for a stronger emphasis offensively, specifically, for the team to play at a faster pace.
Speed plays right into Barzal’s style of play and would notably change how he impacts the offense. As the best skater on the roster, he can gash opponents on the rush and in space and create scoring opportunities. Lambert will want to take advantage of Barzal’s skating ability by allowing him to crash the net on the rush but also by giving him linemates who can skate with him and overwhelm opponents.
The skaters who can optimize Barzal’s speed are some of the younger forwards on the team. Wahlstrom and Beauvillier are two of the better skating forwards and if either of the two can step up offensively, they will be the perfect complementary pieces to Barzal this season. However, even if veteran skaters are on his line, the objective from Lambert will be to allow his top line to play faster and overwhelm opposing defenses in transition and off turnovers.
Lee & Instinctive Goal Scorers
Anders Lee played the second half of last season on the Nelson-led line, a change that helped form the Islanders’ top line and improve the offense. After suffering a season-ending injury in 2021, Lee not only recovered as last season progressed but proved why he is one of the best finishers on the team, scoring 28 goals and adding 18 assists to the offense. The move helped the Islanders, but it subsequently left Barzal without an instinctive offensive zone skater, someone who could wait for the puck to find them in the slot for a scoring chance.
Last season, Barzal showed some of his limitations, and without a shooter on the wing or a skater who can finish scoring chances, his production wasn’t the same. It’s possible Lee moves back to the Barzal line, but considering his success in the second half of last season, it’s unlikely. Instead, the Islanders have to find other skaters who can play a similar role in the offensive zone or ask one of the forwards to adapt to that role as a finisher in the slot and the crease to pick apart opposing goaltenders. Whether it’s Beauvillier stepping up into this role or Zach Parise proving he has one more year left in the tank to be a top-line forward, the Islanders will look for that forward to optimize their best player’s skills.
Other Ways the Islanders Can Help Barzal
One of the elements of the Islanders’ offense that will be pivotal to Barzal’s success is the power play and who is playing alongside him on the man-advantage. With more space to operate, Barzal can generate more shots but also find open skaters, making reliable shooters a more valuable aspect of the power play for the Islanders.
Another important way the Islanders can help Barzal is when he doesn’t have the puck, specifically, if the defensemen can generate shots on the net from the blue line and open up the ice in the offensive zone. Noah Dobson emerged as the Islanders’ best player from the point last year, scoring 13 goals and 38 assists and with Pulock back in the lineup along with the team acquiring Alexander Romanov, the defensive unit can add that extra element to the offense. More shots from the point and overall production from the defensemen will allow Barzal to find second-chance shots and more opportunities to find the back of the net to potentially result in a career year.
The Islanders aren’t going to go out of their way to help Barzal have a big year and instead will do what’s best for the team. However, a big year for Barzal will result in a great season for the team. If he has a career year, the Islanders will have a top six that can compete with some of the best in the Metropolitan Division and allow the team to compete for a Stanley Cup.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.