The New York Islanders‘ 2021-22 season was difficult to gauge. There were parts of the team that took noticeable steps forward, showing significant growth and hope for the future. Others, however, showed enormous negatives that were all too clear for us to see. After allowing only 2.23 goals per game in the 2020-21 season, the Islanders allowed 2.82 goals per game this past season. Coupled with a down year in the offensive zone, it’s no wonder they struggled throughout the season.
The defensive unit collectively looked slower and struggled to both clear the puck out of the defensive zone and start up the offense, even with the growth of youngster Noah Dobson. General manager Lou Lamoriello, who just fired head coach Barry Trotz, and a week later, hired Lane Lambert, maybe hoping the latter can infuse a better transition game into this team, something the team lacked severely this last season. Fellow Hockey Writers contributor Mike Fink and I look back at his past season in this two-part series grading Islanders players, beginning with the defensive pairings and goalies.
Ryan Pulock – Adam Pelech: Fink A- | Zella B+
Fink: Ryan Pulock’s absence early on in the season most notably hurt the Islanders’ defense and affected the team overall. Pulock missed multiple weeks with a lower-body injury and the Islanders were forced to adapt without their star defensemen, often playing Adam Pelech alongside multiple defensemen early on.
However, once Pulock returned to the team and started playing alongside Pelech, the Islanders had their top pairing back. The duo continued to lead the defense with Pelech earning an All-Star selection. The two defensemen combined for eight goals and 41 assists but made their greatest impact in the neutral zone and defensive zone, cutting off angles to the net for opposing forwards and forcing turnovers, combining for 8.9 defensive point shares in the process.
Zella: B+ might seem a bit unfair for the Islanders’ top pair, especially when you consider Pulock was recovering from injury. Perhaps they set their own standard too high the last three seasons, when they were the clear leaders for the Islanders. However, this season, Pelech carried this pair, showing an amazing ability to escape from danger with the puck and even some offensive flair, leading to his first NHL All-Star Game appearance. Pulock is, or was, the offensive part of this duo, yet for the second straight season, he could not find his scoring touch, putting up less than 20 points yet again.
In their 56 games together, they had the second-highest Corsi% on the team (according to Natural Stat Trick), just behind Pelech and Noah Dobson, though the latter pairing played significantly less time together. This is good news considering they’re still the team’s top pair, but Pulock is going to need to be fully recovered heading into next season if the Islanders want to contend again.
Noah Dobson – Zdeno Chara: Fink B+ | Zella B
Fink: Pairing Dobson with Zdeno Chara had its positives and negatives. While the pairing allowed Dobson to play alongside an experienced defenseman, helping his development and giving the Islanders a strong pairing defensively, it also slowed the young defenseman down.
Dobson had a breakout year for the Islanders. Aside from improving in the defensive zone and maturing into a disciplined skater, Dobson emerged as the Islanders’ best defenseman in the offensive zone and from the point. The 22-year-old defenseman scored 13 goals and distributed 38 assists, leading the defensive unit in both categories, and provided the team with a puck-handling defenseman, something the team lacked otherwise.
Chara on the other hand struggled this season. While Chara created turnovers and limited shots on the net in the defensive zone, the 45-year-old defenseman struggled to handle the puck and turn defense into offense. Moreover, he slowed the Islanders down, especially on defense in a league that exploits opponents with speed and quick puck movement. Playing alongside Dobson, the Islanders had a strong pairing but one that was ultimately limited.
Zella: I agree with Fink on everything here. Dobson’s breakout year was one of the best seasons by a young Islander defender since Bryan Berard. His pairing next to Chara likely helped him get there, but together, they struggled mightily. They played the most minutes of any pair on the team and also had the worst Corsi% and Fenwick%.
My B rating for the pair is exactly that – for the pair. It isn’t a reflection of Dobson so much as it is how teams took advantage of a much slower and less versatile Chara. Time after time, teams put the puck down Chara’s side of the ice and were able to recover it without much issue. At that point, Dobson can only do so much, and his underlying numbers suffered as a result.
Scott Mayfield – Andy Greene: Fink B | Zella B-
Fink: Scott Mayfield played alongside multiple defensemen throughout the season but was most often paired with 38-year-old veteran Andy Greene. Mayfield and Greene gave the Islanders an experienced defensive pairing that provided depth and three formidable pairings for the majority of the season.
Unfortunately, Mayfield missed the final few weeks of the season with an injury and the defense struggled at the end of the season as a result. Mayfield’s absence forced the Islanders to pair Greene with younger, less experienced defensemen like Sebastian Aho, Grant Hutton, and Robin Salo who all showed promise but struggled to replace the veteran skater.
Zella: If there was ever going to be a definition of what a ho-hum defensive pairing was, it would be these two. Nothing flashy, not a lot of mistakes given the eye test, and a fairly reliable pairing all things considered. The underlying numbers aren’t as kind, however. They failed to generate very much in the way of high danger scoring chances but did a decent job at limiting them. I suppose the former was their role on the team at the end of the day, though between Dobson-Chara and Green-Mayfield, the team was essentially depending on two sets of third pairs to get the job done, so it’s no wonder they took a step back this season.
Part of the issue with this pairing was that they aren’t very mobile. Like Chara, they excelled below the goal line and in front of the net. Other than that, they seemed to struggle to keep up. Both need to be paired with a more agile partner to get the most out of their skillset.
Ilya Sorokin & Semyon Varlamov: Fink A+ | Zella A-
Fink: The best unit for the Islanders throughout the season was the goaltending. The duo of Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov allowed the Islanders to split starts and keep both goaltenders well-rested throughout the season. Moreover, the strong presence in the net allowed the team to win low-scoring games and often compensate for a struggling offense.
Sorokin was the de facto starter at the beginning of the season, with Varlamov missing the first nine games with an injury. However, Sorokin not only established himself as the primary starter this season but made his mark as one of the best young goaltenders in the NHL. The 26-year-old goaltender had a .925 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.40 goals-against average (GAA) on 1643 shots with seven shutouts but also proved that he is one of the more athletic goaltenders in the game, making remarkable saves throughout the season, highlighted by the save against the New York Rangers.
Varlamov had a slow start to the season, returning from injury and slowly returning to form. However, Varlamov still put together a strong season with a .912 SV% and a 2.88 GAA on 964 shots. The 34-year-old goaltender is entering the final year of his contract but based on the previous season, the Islanders have seen firsthand the value of two strong starting goaltenders.
Zella: I give them an A- just because Varlamov’s start to the season, though he bounced back in a big way. It’s also hard to calculate just how much Varlamov has helped Sorokin during his short time in North America. So even if he didn’t play well, Varlamov had an impact on this team, a lot like Chara with Dobson. The Russian duo appears to have an amazing relationship that’s playing a huge role in Sorokin being able to adjust to the NHL.
Sorokin really carries the mail here, ending the season with top-five numbers in the NHL to go along with a winning record despite the Islanders missing the playoffs by 16 points. He’s 100% the future between the pipes for the Islanders, and if Varlamov is around for the final season of his contract and comes to camp healthy, they’ll likely be one of the top tandems in the league in 2022-23.
The defensive pairings, which totaled 44 for the entire season, varied wildly in effectiveness as much as it did in the number of defenders used. These represent the ones we saw most of the time and were the ones we expected to see from the start of the season. It’s clear they all need work, specifically on the offensive side of the puck, heading into next season. The goaltenders, on the other hand, appear to be in a good place. The question is, can they keep up playing at this level, or will we see a drop in play? The next Islanders’ season hangs in the balance.
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.