Islanders High Floor Roster Not as Good as Hurricanes’ Ceiling

The First Round series between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Islanders is a one-sided one. The Islanders won Game 3, scoring four goals in the final four minutes to pull away with a 5-1 victory. However, the Hurricanes have won the other three games and are one win away from advancing to the Second Round for the third year in a row.

Related: 4 Takeaways From Islanders’ 5-2 Loss vs Hurricanes

The Hurricanes and Islanders have a lot of similarities. Both teams are led by their defenses, while their forwards also step up defensively, and they thrive in low-scoring games. In a league where goals are up and teams want to play fast, high-scoring games, the Hurricanes, and Islanders win by doing the opposite, slowing games down and winning with defense.

2023 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Carolina Hurricanes New York Islanders
Carolina Hurricanes New York Islanders (The Hockey Writers)

The way these teams are built is different and is displayed in this series. The Islanders were built to reach the playoffs with a good roster, and if the stars aligned, they’d be able to make a Cup run. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, set themselves up to win the Stanley Cup, and their moves put them in a position to do that. The offseason and trade deadline moves between the two teams show the gap between a good roster and a great one, and it’s showing in a lopsided series

Islanders & Hurricanes Offseasons

After missing the playoffs in 2021-22, the Islanders entered the offseason looking to bounce back and return to the playoffs. The first big move general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello made was during the 2022 NHL Entry Draft when he acquired defenseman Alexander Romanov from the Montreal Canadiens. The offseason was otherwise a quiet and uneventful one, but the Romanov addition gave the Islanders a starting-caliber defenseman to help bring a veteran-heavy team back to the playoffs.

Romanov raised the floor on the defense. With 4.3 defensive point shares, 129 blocked shots, and a team-leading 198 hits, he was one of the best skaters in the defensive zone on the Islanders. Along with Sebastian Aho, he was also a significant upgrade on the left side of the defense from Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene the year before. Romanov helped give the Islanders a strong but fast defensive unit that ultimately was one of the best in the league, allowing only 2.65 goals per game.

Alexander Romanov New York Islanders
Alexander Romanov, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Romanov improved the defense, but he is limited. He isn’t a great puck-handler, passer, or playmaker at the point and limits the Islanders offensively as a result. He has a great shot but hasn’t been able to tap into it this year, scoring only two goals. The Islanders have a great defense but lack the two-way players needed to put them over the top, and it’s cost them, particularly against the Hurricanes in the First Round.

The Hurricanes meanwhile improved their defense by acquiring Brent Burns, a decision that was seen as a high-risk move. At 37 years old, he was past his prime years and on the decline while still taking up a $5.2 million salary cap hit. Burns also was declining as a skater in his final few years with the San Jose Sharks, making him a liability at times in a fast-paced game. The Hurricanes were taking a risk by adding him to their defensive unit, but they needed a replacement for Anthony DeAngelo and Ian Cole, who both left the team in the offseason.

Burns was a great addition to the Hurricanes and was arguably their best defenseman this season. He leads the unit with 18 goals and 43 assists on the offensive end of the ice while contributing a team-high 6.0 defensive point shares. He can’t carry a defense, something the San Jose Sharks learned in recent seasons, but playing alongside Jaccob Slavin and Brady Skjei in a well-rounded defense, he thrived. Moreover, he’s been the addition the Hurricanes have needed for years to put them over the top in the playoffs as an elite two-way defenseman. In the First Round, Burns has five assists, including two in the 2-1 Game 1 victory with his passing skills and playmaking ability from the point opening up the offense.

Along with the Burns addition, GM Don Waddell added veterans to the roster, hoping they could prepare the Hurricanes for a Cup run. The Hurricanes acquired Max Pacioretty from the Vegas Golden Knights, a reliable top-six forward when he’s healthy. Unfortunately, the move hasn’t worked out, as Pacioretty has dealt with injuries throughout the season and is on long-term injured reserve, leaving the team with a void in the offense. The Hurricanes also signed Paul Stastny to a one-year contract, adding a veteran two-way center to the forward unit. Stastny doesn’t stand out on the stat sheet, but he has played a pivotal role in the First Round against the Islanders. The 37-year-old center has played a minimal role but has stepped up defensively and helped eliminate the Islanders’ offense with a strong forecheck and instincts that allow him to force turnovers.

Paul Stastny Carolina Hurricanes
Paul Stastny, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In recent years, the Hurricanes have been eliminated by teams that have two-way defensemen and veterans playing depth roles. This offseason, they made it a priority to find players to fill the voids on their roster and help make them a Stanley Cup contender as a result. The Hurricanes didn’t have the greatest offseason or make the biggest moves, but their acquisitions are paying off in the playoffs.

Islanders Trade Deadline Turns Season Around

After a quiet offseason, Lamoriello made the splash that the Islanders needed, acquiring Bo Horvat in a blockbuster trade with the Vancouver Canucks. The team struggled as they went into the All-Star Break, and the move injected life into the roster and turned the season around. Horvat’s offensive numbers are disappointing, scoring only seven goals and nine assists since the deal was made and only one goal in the playoffs. However, his all-around play helped turn the Islanders into a playoff team as they went 17-9-4 in the second half of the season to secure a wild card spot.

Bo Horvat New York Islanders
Bo Horvat, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Islanders added Pierre Engvall at the trade deadline, who has been a reliable scoring presence in the middle of the forward unit. With a great shot, Engvall scored five goals in 18 games and formed a strong connection with Kyle Palmieri. Like the Horvat addition, the move helped get the Islanders to the playoffs after coming up short the year before.

The problem with the moves Lamoriello made is that they didn’t put the Islanders over the top. They allowed the team to secure a playoff spot but left them with glaring weaknesses that could be easily exposed in the playoffs. The Islanders entered the playoffs without two-way defensemen, versatile forwards, and an offense that could step up when needed. The Hurricanes exploited the weaknesses and boast a 3-1 series lead because of it.

Hurricanes Add Reinforcements at Deadline

The Hurricanes entered the trade deadline with one of the best records in the Eastern Conference, and they were looking to add the missing pieces for a Cup run. Building off a strong offseason, Waddell doubled down on the idea that the team needed versatility and two-way players. They added Shayne Gostisbehere to the defense while acquiring Jesse Puljujarvi to strengthen the forward unit.

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Puljujarvi has made minimal impact on the Hurricanes, playing only 17 games since the trade deadline and only two playoff games. Gostisbehere, meanwhile, has rounded out the roster to help them make a playoff run. Playing a minimal role in the defensive unit, he’s provided a reliable two-way presence and given the Hurricanes three strong defensive pairings. In the First Round, Gostisbehere is only averaging 16:33 ice time, but he’s helped eliminate the Islanders’ offense by stepping up at the blue line and preventing them from establishing an offensive zone presence, making the series a lopsided one through four games.

Hurricanes & Islanders Pieces in Place

The Islanders’ advantage entering the playoffs was goaltender Ilya Sorokin who had a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. With a .924 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.34 goals-against average (GAA) on 1838 shots and 36.0 goals saved above average (GSAA), he helped carry the team to the playoffs. However, Sorokin can only do so much, as the First Round has shown. Elite goaltending raises the floor of a team, but elite scorers raise the ceiling, and the Islanders lack the scorers to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Ilya Sorokin New York Islanders
Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Along with the lack of elite scoring, the Islanders have a roster designed to struggle in the playoffs. They have too many players that are great in one facet of the game but lack versatility. Too many one-trick ponies in a league where versatility is king. Anders Lee is a finisher near the net. Mathew Barzal is a passer and great skater but not a sharpshooter. Palmieri, Engvall, and Zach Parise are all sharpshooters on the wing. Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin form a great checking line but they fail to provide a spark to the offense. The playoffs force teams to adapt with players often playing out of their comfort zone and in multiple roles. The Islanders don’t have the players that can do that.

Interestingly enough, the Hurricanes don’t have an elite goaltender on their roster. Among the Eastern Conference juggernauts, they might be the only team without a goaltender that can carry them. That said, the Hurricanes have the essential pieces throughout the roster to compensate for the issues in the net. They have elite forwards with Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas leading the offense. They have Slavin, Skjei, and Brett Pesce stepping up defensively, limiting high-danger chances, and eliminating shooting lanes. The team has two-way players throughout the lineup and skaters that complement their star’s skill sets.

Martin Necas Carolina Hurricanes
Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Hurricanes are only one win away from the Second Round. While they only reached the Eastern Conference Final once in the past 10 years and haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 2006, they look poised to contend for the title this season. With the moves the Hurricanes made, it’s understandable why they look like a complete team built for the playoffs.

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