The New York Islanders concluded their preseason with a 3-1 win against the New York Rangers on Sunday at UBS Arena, finishing with a record of 4-2-0 after a rough start. It’s often difficult to make any kind of judgment in the preseason, but as it concluded and the roster was solidified with NHL players, we saw the team show signs of Islanders hockey from the net out. Ilya Sorokin looked dialed in right from puck drop, and the offense showed some early signs of life, including a sharp-angle goal from Mathew Barzal. The defense, on the other hand, looked shakey despite the score at the final buzzer.
General manager Lou Lamoriello announced the team’s final roster on Monday evening, though it seems like the final lineup won’t be a safe bet until Thursday. In the coming weeks, it would be wise to expect some more movement or, at the very least, lineup changes depending on who’s available.
Islanders Announce Final Roster
On Sunday, a few players – Grant Hutton, Paul LaDue, and Otto Koivula – were placed on waivers, giving us an early hint as to who would make the final roster. There were also some more clues at Monday’s practice as to which players head coach Lane Lambert would have available on opening night this Thursday against the Florida Panthers. The suspicions were proved true with Lamoriello’s press conference.
The main news revolved around Cal Clutterbuck, who was placed on injured reserve retroactive to Sept. 26 to get to the 23-player limit. Scott Mayfield has also been unavailable but is believed to be under the weather and not injured. He is expected to be ready for opening night according to Lamoriello. Oliver Wahlstrom was also not available last game against the Rangers, though he did skate on Monday with the extras, meaning he may be close. He said he felt pretty good in his first practice back on Monday, but his spot may not be as certain as we once thought.
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Earlier in the day, we saw what will likely be the forward lines based on who was available, which include Kieffer Bellows on the third line with J.G. Pageau and Josh Bailey, presumably the spot held by Wahlstrom prior to his injury. Bellows didn’t appear to be a lock for the final roster heading into camp but injuries and a good preseason, echoed by Lamoriello, have shown the coaching staff and management he belongs, at least for the time being. Skating alongside two veterans who like to pass the puck could prove to be exactly what he needs to have a breakout season and score a few goals in some sheltered minutes.
Dark horse Nikita Soshnikov has also made an impression, and with Clutterbuck out for the moment, he seems to be destined for the fourth line with Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin. He’s a versatile enough player and has some experience playing with Martin where this makes sense for now and can be evaluated as time goes on, as Ross Johnston might not be the best bet to play opposite him given they’re very similar players. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Johnston doesn’t play the penalty kill, whereas Soshnikov is a bit closer to Clutterbuck’s skillset in that regard.
Lamoriello’s press conference on Monday evening gave us more information about Clutterbuck’s availability on Thursday, saying “I wouldn’t think so at this point because he has not been with the team for a period of time. But I wouldn’t rule out anything. But I would be doubtful, to be perfectly honest.”
On defense, things are a little clearer even with a few extras skating. As NYI Hockey Now’s Stefen Rosner noted, players are “allowed to practice until [they] officially clear [waivers] 24 hours later,” which is why Hutton, Paul LaDue, and Otto Koivula were still with the team. With those players heading to Bridgeport, Robin Salo has officially locked up a spot on the final roster alongside either Sebastian Aho or Mayfield for opening night. Aho and Salo have a lot to prove, though for very different reasons.
Sorokin Dialed in Early
Early in the preseason, the Islanders’ goaltenders were shelled and looked to be shaking off some serious rust in back-to-back losses against the New Jersey Devils and Rangers, both by a score of 4-1. Fast forward a few games and with a bit of momentum gained, both Sorokin and Varlamov are looking much more like themselves with the former shining in a 3-1 win against the Rangers.
In the first period alone, Sorokin had to be sharp as the Rangers came in waves. But he looked calm, cool, and collected despite the heavy workload, which is a good sign for the Islanders who hope Sorokin can recreate his play from last season despite the team’s overall results. His movements looked very smooth and didn’t exaggerate side-to-side, staying square to the puck for nearly every save.
Islanders Defense Needs Work
One of the reasons Sorokin had to be so sharp in the Islanders’ win against the Rangers was due to some shaky defense during the game. Some of this could be chalked up to rust, but in game six of the preseason, you’d expect some of that rust to be worn off. To be fair, though, it’s better to have that rust now and make some glaring mistakes than this Thursday when the Islanders kick off their season against the Florida Panthers.
Lambert didn’t have harsh words for his team, but it was clear he noticed how much time the Islanders spent in their own end, especially in the first period. A lot of sloppy plays and bad passes led to chances against in addition to players just getting beat by the Rangers’ speedy forwards. Definitely not the type of composure you’d expect from the Islanders, but one hopes this was simply preseason play and not the focused team that will be ready for the regular season.
The Islanders seemed to put together a much better game the rest of the way, with the defense getting involved in the offensive zone and creating opportunities to get the puck up the ice quickly. Salo made a smart, quick pass to Pageau in the middle frame to spring Barzal on a breakaway, leading to a goal. Aho also had a heads-up play in the high slot, which landed on Bellows’ stick for a goal, a good sign for both players being in position and getting the puck off their sticks quickly.
In their own end, though, there were a lot of mistakes and fumbled passes, particularly by Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, not the players you’d expect to be in that category this late into the preseason. The ideas were good in theory, but the execution of some of the passes in the first period showed some lapsed judgment from the veteran pair. Alexander Romanov had some good moments during the game as well, jumping into the play and finding himself in and around the net. He also found himself in some trouble after hitting newly signed Ranger Vincent Trocheck. Romanov was fined $5,000 for charging, something he’s going to have to find the line on as he’ll be a big part of the Islanders’ back end this season and needs to be in the lineup.
Overall, there were not a lot of surprises as the Islanders wound down the preseason and announced their final roster. Without many offseason moves, fans and media alike seemed to be torn on where the Islanders will fall at the end of the season. For now, though, it’ll be one game at a time for a battle-tested, yet aging roster on Long Island. They kick things off at home this Thursday against the Panthers.