Islanders Roster Couldn’t Match Hurricanes’ Contending One

The Carolina Hurricanes edged out the New York Islanders in the first round in a hard-fought six-game series. The Islanders made the series close with two wins but they were no match for the Hurricanes who are built to win the Stanley Cup.

Carolina Hurricanes New York Islanders Handshake Line
Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders players shake hands after Game 6 of the First Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Hurricanes battled through injuries throughout the series and by the time they won Game 6 in overtime, they were without many of their best skaters from the regular season. Andrei Svechnikov was a top-line forward but was out indefinitely with a knee injury and Teuvo Teravainen who was a reliable top-six forward missed the final four games of the season with a hand injury. However, the series still showed a gap between the two teams, specifically in how they were built.

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The Islanders are built to reach the playoffs and general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello has put together a team that will be competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes meanwhile are built to win the Cup in the modern game. Specifically, GM Don Waddell has designed a roster that can win in a faster, more offensive-minded league with a potent offense but also with an elite defense that can win low-scoring games.

Hurricanes vs Islanders Defensive Units

The Hurricanes and Islanders entered this series with two of the best defenses in the league with both teams allowing under 2.65 goals per game. This series reflected that as the two teams combined for only 31 goals in the six-game series. The defenses stood out but the series also showed the gap between a good and an elite unit. In the modern game, two-way defensemen are pivotal to success as teams need skaters that can create turnovers and turn them into instant scoring chances for the offense. The Hurricanes have the skaters that can contribute to the offense while the Islanders don’t and the difference between the two units was exposed.

The Hurricanes’ defensive unit impacted the series in all three zones. Brent Burns set up the offense on the rush with his outlet passes and his playmaking from the point was a difference-maker in the first round. Burns had five assists in the series including two in Game 1 that helped the team win the game 2-1. Jaccob Slavin was a force in the neutral zone and the slot, eliminating shooting lanes and preventing the Islanders from creating scoring chances when they had the puck. The rest of the defense was not only creating turnovers in the series but setting up the offense with their puck-handling ability and outlet passes.

Brent Burns Carolina Hurricanes
Brent Burns, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Islanders have a great defense that stepped up in this series, especially in Game 3 and Game 5 where they allowed only one and two goals respectively. Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech are two of the best in the league in the defensive zone and both skaters were pivotal in eliminating the Hurricanes’ offense. Noah Dobson and Alexander Romanov are two young defensemen that are coming off big seasons and are only continuing to improve. Scott Mayfield, who played the final year of his contract, had a great series where he made the case to remain with the team for another season, especially with his effort in the final minutes of Game 5 to secure the 3-2 win.

For all the praise the Islanders’ defense deserves, it couldn’t help out the offense. For the majority of the series, the defensemen were clearing the puck out of the defensive zone instead of attempting outlet passes. Likewise, the skaters would oftentimes chip the puck into the offensive zone instead of effectively starting up the offense. Pulock, Pelech, and Mayfield all scored in the series but the defense was a non-factor from the point. The Islanders struggled offensively and needed a skater to step up at the blue line and open up the offense but that never happened. Ultimately, it made the difference in a close series against the Hurricanes, especially in the one-goal games, which four of the games in the first round were.

Versatility vs Niche Skillsets

The Islanders have a roster with both star power and depth. At first glance, it doesn’t have a glaring weakness with multiple elite skaters in the top six, reliable depth forwards, three strong defensive pairings, and arguably the best goaltender in the league in Ilya Sorokin. The underlying weakness is the lack of versatility, specifically, too many of their top players are one-trick ponies and it was their undoing in the first round.

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

Anders Lee is a finisher who can find the back of the net but doesn’t open up the offense as a passer. Mathew Barzal stepped up as a scorer in the first round but is a playmaker who has been reluctant to shoot the puck in his career. Zach Parise is an instinctive goal scorer who scored 21 goals in the regular season but isn’t a playmaker, distributing only 13 assists. The Islanders have players that can complement each other’s skill sets but when one player struggles, the entire roster falls apart. Moreover, when they are asked to adapt, they struggle to do so as they can only tap into specific strengths.

The Hurricanes have stars that can adapt and win with their versatility. Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas, the team’s two best forwards, proved throughout the season that they can beat teams with their passing skill and elite playmaking ability but also find the back of the net themselves. The two skaters combined for 64 goals and 74 assists this season and in the playoffs, their versatility helped the Hurricanes win the series. Aho in particular stepped up, leading the top line and despite playing alongside different skaters throughout the series with the pile-up of injuries, he scored a team-high four goals and three assists.

Sebastian Aho Carolina Hurricanes New York Islanders
Sebastian Aho #20 of the Carolina Hurricanes battles Sebastian Aho #25 of the New York Islanders during the third period in Game One of the First Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at PNC Arena (Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images)

Along with Aho and Necas, the Hurricanes’ roster displayed flexibility and versatility to give them an advantage in the series. Stefan Noesen is a passer on the wing, distributing 23 assists this season but he stepped up as a scorer, finding the back of the net twice in the series. Paul Stastny scored only nine goals all season and is a defensive forward. He stepped up in the offensive zone and scored three goals, second-most on the team in the first round, including the Game 6 overtime-winning goal. In a series that required players to step up and take on extra roles, the Hurricanes had a roster filled with players that were able to do so while the Islanders didn’t.

Hurricanes Can Win in a Multitude of Ways

A good measurement of whether a team can win the Stanley Cup is if they can win in a variety of ways. Last year, the Florida Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy led by a high-powered offense that averaged 4.11 goals per game. They were a great team but weren’t able to win the low-scoring, defensive, grind-it-out games and it was their undoing as they were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. Similarly, the Colorado Avalanche won the Cup last year with a potent offense leading the way, averaging 3.76 goals per game, but when they needed to, they won the low-scoring games as well. Most notably, the Avalanche won Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final 2-1 in a defensive battle where the game slowed down.

The Islanders tried to adjust this season and become a faster, more offensive-minded team with new head coach Lane Lambert behind the bench. However, by the end of the year, they were only winning low-scoring games, specifically, games that became goaltending duels, which gave them the advantage with Sorokin in the net. When the games sped up and became high-scoring, the Islanders struggled. It was their undoing in the first round and cost them Game 2 as the Hurricanes battled back and won 4-3 in overtime.

Lane Lambert New York Islanders
Lane Lambert, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Hurricanes proved throughout the season that they can win regardless of how the game is played. They are led by their defense, which allows only 2.56 goals per game, but they also had an offense that could step up and take over, averaging 3.20 goals per game. They used their adaptability to their advantage, especially in the first round against an Islanders team that could only win with defense. The Hurricanes won the defensive battles but also allowed their offense to take control of the series, speeding up games and creating more scoring chances.

Other Differences Between the Hurricanes & Islanders

What stood out in the first round is that the Hurricanes won the series without an elite goaltender or even a confirmed starter. They entered it with Antti Raanta as the starter but after he struggled in Game 5, they switched to Frederik Andersen who allowed them to clinch the series. In a league where goaltending is essential to win the Stanley Cup, the Hurricanes have proven they can thrive regardless of who is in the net. Lamriello built the Islanders with goaltending being the priority with Sorokin carrying the team to the playoffs. Waddell meanwhile structured his team to carry the goaltender with a defensive unit that could limit high-danger chances and shots on the net while the offense also steps up and controls both possession and the pace of the game.

Antti Raanta Carolina Hurricanes
Antti Raanta, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Hurricanes also have a prospect pool that allows them to not only remain competitive in the long run but continue to win in a hard-fought series. The Islanders have one of the worst farm systems in the NHL and don’t have the players that can step up and become regulars when injuries occur. The Hurricanes’ pipeline isn’t great but it’s good enough to provide them with reinforcements, especially when the injuries pile up, as they did in the first round.

The Islanders are a few pieces away from competing for the Stanley Cup, making this offseason an intriguing one for Lamoriello, who will try to put this team over the top. The Hurricanes however are built to win the Cup and are now one step closer to doing so as they advance to the second round for the third year in a row.

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