Islanders Season Has Fallen Apart – How We Got Here

The New York Islanders’ season has fallen apart. After starting the campaign with a 15-8-0 record as one of the best teams in the Metropolitan Division, then to 18-14-2 as a borderline playoff team, now they are a 23-20-5 team that is on the outside of the postseason looking in. The past nine games have been particularly disappointing, with only one win, ruining what was a promising season.

Unless the Islanders turn things around by the All-Star break, they could end up trading away some players at the deadline. Considering their start, the collapse is surprising, especially since they looked ready to compete in the Eastern Conference again this season. So, what went wrong? How did the Islanders fall apart, and is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Islanders Injuries Pile Up

Injuries have left the Islanders’ roster in shambles and derailed their season. Top-pair defenseman Adam Pelech hasn’t played since the Dec. 6 loss to the St. Louis Blues, while top-six forward, Kyle Palmieri, hasn’t played since Dec. 16. Oliver Wahlstrom hasn’t played since Dec. 27, and depth forwards Cal Clutterbuck, Simon Holmstrom, and Hudson Fasching have also missed time, devastating the entire forward unit. Additionally, goaltender Semyon Varlamov missed over a week, limiting the Islanders’ options in the net. These notable absences have forced the team to constantly shuffle the lineup, which limits the ability to build chemistry and reliable units. Moreover, they lack reliable contributors upfront who could have elevated the offense.

The question is if this failure is by design, specifically with moves the front office has made in recent years. Every roster deals with injuries, but they seem to have taken a greater toll on the Islanders because their roster is built on depth and not star power. While a deep roster helped them reach the Stanley Cup Semifinals in 2020 and 2021, they need a full roster to compete, and when a few players are injured, offensive production plummets. That is the risk general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello took when he built the team and kept the roster intact over the offseason, failing to sign a star player like Johnny Gaudreau or Nazem Kadri. Lamoriello trusted his roster, but, unfortunately, injuries piled up for the second season in a row, and the team has unraveled.

Lou Lamoriello New York Islanders
Lou Lamoriello of the New York Islanders attends the 2019 NHL Draft (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Moreover, injuries tend to happen when a roster is veteran-heavy. Ten players on the Islanders are 30 years old or older, the same number as last season’s team. While Lamoriello could have shifted toward a younger lineup, he doubled down, re-signing both 35-year-old Clutterbuck and 38-year-old Zach Parise at the end of last season. An older roster isn’t going to remain healthy for all 82 games, especially since the recovery time tends to be longer for veteran players, which is what we’re seeing this season.

Islanders Became Too Reliant on Sorokin

Starting goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who was named to the All-Star Game, carried the team until he couldn’t. He has a .924 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.37 goals-against average (GAA) on 1062 shots and has 19.8 goals saved above average (GSAA), making him one of the favorites to win the Vezina Trophy. However, the lack of goal support from the offense and help from the defense has let him down and set the Islanders back.

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

Early on, Sorokin, along with Varlamov, the veteran backup, helped the Islanders become an elite team. However, goaltending can only push the team so far. With the rest of the roster struggling, opponents will find the back of the net, even when Sorokin is playing at a high level. In the 3-2 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres, he saved 42 shots to help the Islanders earn a point, but the rest of the roster failed to step up, resulting in a tough loss.

Lambert’s Aggressive Style Provides Highs & Lows

Coming into the campaign, the Islanders knew the ceiling of first-year head coach Lane Lambert’s fast-paced system. Defensemen were joining the rush, shooting the puck more often, and taking on a bigger offensive role. The forwards played more aggressively and beat opponents in space, allowing the Islanders to win games with speed.

Lane Lambert New York Islanders
Lane Lambert, head coach of the New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The problem is Lambert’s system only succeeds when the offense is playing well and constantly finding the back of the net. The defensemen can be aggressive, with the risk of allowing scoring chances the other way, if it pays off and the team is winning high-scoring games, as they did to start the season. However, the offense has looked hapless. The result has made a talented defense not look like one. In particular, the defense looks undisciplined and out of position. In the past nine games, they have allowed 30 goals while allowing opponents to find open shots at will.

Top-Six Inconsistencies

The Islanders’ top-six forwards have either disappeared for stretches or have been inconsistent throughout the season. Brock Nelson is an All-Star-caliber player but didn’t score until the eighth game of the season and went 14 games without scoring a goal from Dec. 17 until Jan 19. Mathew Barzal went 18 games without scoring a goal to start the season, and Anders Lee went 13 consecutive games without a goal, leaving the team without one of their most reliable scorers.

Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Likewise, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Josh Bailey, and Anthony Beauvillier are playing major roles in the forward unit and have combined for only 25 goals and 40 assists. The offensive stars aren’t playing at a high level, and while the team isn’t built of star power, the best players have failed to step up. The Islanders have played 48 games and don’t have a 20-goal scorer on the roster, with only six skaters with 10 goals or more, and thanks to the lack of production at the top, they have one of the worst offenses in the league.

How the Islanders Turn This Season Around?

The most important thing right now is for the Islanders to get healthy. When some of their players return, specifically Pelech to the defense and Palmieri to the forward unit, the team will start to play better. At full strength, they are one of the best teams in the league, as the first two months of the season showed.

Related: How NHL Teams Fall From the Top

That said, the Islanders need to bring up some of the young players from the American Hockey League (AHL) and keep them on the NHL roster. William Dufour struggled in his debut in the Jan. 18, 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, but Holmstrom and Aatu Raty have made their case to stay in the lineup. The team needs a new look, and a young presence to balance out the veterans.

Aatu Raty New York Islanders
Aatu Raty, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

When Lamoriello fired former head coach Barry Trotz and hired Lambert, he said he wanted a new voice to lead the team. Halfway through the season, the Islanders need fresh faces to help them recover. Otherwise, Lamoriello might not last long as GM. His gamble on an aging roster, refusing to make a splash in free agency, and changing head coaches are all backfiring and look worse with each loss.

However, if they can turn things around, they will be back in the mix in the Eastern Conference. A hot streak like they had to start the season could put them back in a playoff spot, and the Islanders have a schedule that will allow them to gain ground in the standings. After the All-Star break, they face the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals three times each, two Metropolitan Division teams that are ahead of them in the standings. They can and should win those games to leapfrog both teams in the standings and secure a playoff spot.