At first glance, the New York Islanders’ offense isn’t a strength, and on the contrary, has struggled this season by scoring only 2.72 goals per game. However, the Islanders have drastically turned their offense around since the start of the season — and in the past few months of play — notably scoring 3.26 goals per game since the All-Star break.
Moreover, in the last 14 games, the Islanders have scored four-or-more goals eight times, and have proven they can win high-scoring games. Changes to the forward lines have helped the offense, but players finding unique roles with their skillsets have allowed the team to suddenly find the back of the net throughout the roster.
Nelson & Lee Leading the Top Line
Before the season, it would have been crazy to think that Mathew Barzal wouldn’t be on the Islanders’ top scoring line. The young forward was expected to carry the offense and become the skater that the team builds the attack around. Instead, the Islanders have been carried by their two veteran forwards, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, with a line change that shifted the complexion of the offense.
Nelson has been one of the best goal scorers in the NHL recently, scoring 13 goals in the last 14 games, highlighted by a hat trick in a 4-2 win over the Stars. The veteran forward is a natural goal scorer with great instinct and an accurate shot near the net, but the recent line change has allowed him to become a facilitator of the puck and create offense as well. Playing alongside Lee opens up the ice and as a result, allows Nelson to both find the back of the net and find another goal-scorer open in the slot.
Lee, meanwhile, has personally improved throughout the season, which has helped the veteran forward and the Islanders’ offense alike. After missing the second half of last season with a torn ACL, the team captain has returned to form. In the past few weeks, he has noticeably improved as a skater to effectively help his shift in all three zones. The line change for Lee allows him to still find the back of the net with great play in the slot, or near the opposing goaltender, but alongside Nelson the veteran forward is no longer the primary goal scorer. As a result, he can find more open ice in the offensive zone.
The Barzal-Wahlstrom Connection
Throughout his young career, Oliver Wahlstrom has proven he has the skillset to become a top goal scorer in the NHL, with speed on the wing and accurate shooting. The problem for the Islanders has been finding the right line combination for the young forward to optimize his skill set and help the forward unit. Recently, Wahlstrom has played alongside Barzal, pairing two of the fastest skaters on the team, but also pairing two young forward that could impact the offense for years to come as a scoring duo.
Barzal tends to create scoring chances for his shift, and oftentimes holds onto the puck rather than take a shot on goal. However, with Wahlstrom on the wing, opponents have to respect the shot of the 21-year-old forward, and as a result, give Barzal more open shots in the offensive zone. Furthermore, the 24-year-old forward continues to draw opposing skaters, allowing Wahlstrom to find open shots and the back of the net. This was highlighted by a goal in the 5-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. While the duo has struggled at times, the Islanders have found a way to pair two of their best young skaters on the same shift, and the duo could entice a pending free agent in the offseason to join the team and play alongside the talented skaters.
Josh Bailey’s Transition
Josh Bailey’s strength throughout his career has been finding open skaters and distributing the puck in the offensive zone, highlighted by the 2018-19 season when he recorded 53 assists. This season, Bailey has 24 assists, third-most on the team behind only Barzal and defenseman Noah Dobson, and continues to create offense on the wing for goal scorers like Anthony Beauvillier or Kyle Palmieri. However, the veteran forward has started to find the back of the net, and has started to take more shots in the offensive zone, largely because of his new linemates.
In back-to-back games against the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Winnipeg Jets, Bailey scored three goals, and started to take more shots in the offensive zone as part of a five-goal month. Bailey has started to become more of a shooter in the offense, especially since he started playing alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who like the 32-year-old forward likes to set up the offense. Pageau opens up the ice for the rest of his shift, and with two great passers on the same line, the shots have started to become available for the veteran to find the back of the net.
Ryan Pulock is mostly known for his defensive play, and isn’t often associated with the Islanders’ offense. After all, he’s only recorded three goals and 12 assists this season. The Islanders mostly have benefitted at the point from the 22-year-old Dobson, who has 10 goals and 28 assists this season, but Pulock’s return to the lineup has also greatly impacted the offense. After missing multiple weeks with a lower-body injury, the 27-year-old defenseman’s return has helped turn defense into offense, as well as help the team transition to the offensive end of the ice. Playing alongside Adam Pelech, the defensive unit has one of the best defensive pairings in the game that can force turnovers in the defensive zone and effectively exit the puck out of the zone as well.
Other Things That Have Helped the Offense
The Islanders’ offense has rebounded in large part with the veteran roster stepping up. Palmieri started to take more shots on the net, scoring 11 of his 12 goals in the last 24 games. Likewise, Zach Parise has stepped up on the wing alongside Barzal and Wahlstrom, scoring seven goals in the last 21 games to impact the forward unit. The Islanders’ forward unit is a veteran group, and early on in the season, the roster was to find a rhythm offensively. While the team isn’t expected to make the playoffs, the recent games have proven the team has the pieces in place to compete and an offense that can find the back of the net against any defense in the NHL.
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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.