Islanders Weekly: Questions Arise Amid Early Losing Streak

As it stands right now, the New York Islanders are in the basement of the Eastern Conference six games into the 2022-23 NHL regular season. At 2-4-0, it’s been a difficult start for the Islanders, who had high expectations for themselves, as did many fans and those in the media. With a lineup in flux and mixed-bag performances game to game as well as up and down the roster, it may be some time before we see what this team is truly made of. And while it’s not all doom and gloom, it isn’t not looking good for the Islanders as they head into a difficult stretch of the schedule.

Islanders’ Lineup in Flux

The Islanders entered a critical back-to-back against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers with a little soul-searching to do following a lackluster performance against the New Jersey Devils. Head coach Lane Lambert and general manager Lou Lamoriello decided to make some lineup and roster changes heading into the weekend. With 24 players, including injured reserve, on the roster, Lamoriello needed to waive a player to make room, and Robin Salo – one of two waiver-exempt players for the Islanders – was sent to Bridgeport. This gave Sebastian Aho the green light on defense on a pair with Scott Mayfield.

But that wasn’t the end of the team’s lineup changes. Kieffer Bellows and Josh Bailey also found themselves in the press box with Nikita Soshnikov and Ross Johnston taking their places respectively on Saturday (Oct. 22) and Sunday (Oct. 23). This was Bailey’s first healthy scratch since February 2022 when then-head-coach Barry Trotz sat him for two games. Bellows hasn’t been able to find a consistent spot in the lineup since Oliver Wahlstrom’s return from injury, putting his role on the team in question as he seems to be battling Soshnikov and now Bailey for a regular spot.

Additionally, Lambert mixed up the defense pairs in the game against the Lightning after the Islanders fell down 2-1 at 18:03 of the first period. After the game, a 5-3 loss, he mentioned he wasn’t getting the matchups he wanted, though Noah Dobson and Alexander Romanov are still a little shaky early on this season as they figure each out.

Given the Islanders’ roster situation and a lack of waiver-exempt players, the roster shuffle will likely continue. However, perhaps there won’t be much in the way of movement until the team gets set to hit the road at the beginning of November when they visit Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit. With the Islanders at home this week, the team can live with six defenders and make a callup if necessary without much of an issue. On the road, however, you’d think they’d play it safe and bring Salo back, especially as the team has only five home games in November. The issue then is, how they make space on the 23-player roster. Is someone – Bellows, Johnston, or Soshnikov – waived?

Additionally, the roster crunch means there’s no help coming from Bridgeport in the way of William DuFour, Aatu Raty, or anyone else given the need to waive players unless Wahlstrom’s play deteriorates, who is the only other player exempt. It’s also unlikely the Islanders make a trade this early in the season given Lamoriello’s track record with the team. However, his “if you have time use it” moniker won’t pass muster with fans if the team is out of contention come American Thanksgiving. If this team is going to turn it around, you’re looking at the players that are going to make that happen, and Lambert doubled down on his roster following the team’s third straight loss, this time to the Panthers.

“There’s no concern the right pieces are here. It’s just a matter of generating the chemistry and if things are not going the way we want to, we have to do something in terms of moving our guys around. They understand that.”

Lambert during his post game availability following the loss to the Panthers on Sunday

This won’t get fans feeling warm and fuzzy as they watch their team struggle to find their way early in the season. As others have pointed out, while it’s early to really tell what this team is even with their place in the standings, the red flags are becoming more frequent as the season progresses. For now, the Islanders need to figure it out with what they have.

Islanders Positives From Week 2

The Islanders’ goaltenders look like they’re just about the only players who are starting the season strong despite the absence of a strong record. Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov are carrying their weight so far this season and haven’t looked out of place very often. Sorokin had a bit of an iffy game against the Lightning, allowing goals after he was seemingly surprised by shots, but by and large, both goaltenders have helped keep the Islanders in games.

Related: Islanders’ Goaltending Rotation in 2022-23 & Beyond

Anders Lee is off to a strong start, with four goals, three assists, and seven points in six games this season. He leads the team in goals and points and is tied for the team lead in shots with 18. Wahlstrom, who also has 18 shots, is playing well since his return from injury. He’s bounced around the lineup a bit after the first few games, moving up to play with Lee and Brock Nelson for parts of games as well as alongside J.G. Pageau and Kyle Palmieri.

Anders Lee New York Islanders
Anders Lee, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Islanders’ penalty kill is operating at a perfect 22-for-22 this season, which certainly won’t last forever, but it’s a good sign, and certainly something that can help keep the Islanders afloat as they find their way early in the season. A mix of aggressive play from the players and strong goaltending is responsible for the team’s success on the penalty kill, but with negatives piling up at even strength, they have some work to do.

Islanders Negatives from Week 2

There’s a lot of attention on Lambert at this point, and while trade talk and head coaching issues are a little premature, fans were used to previous head coach Trotz’s unique ability to tinker and find success with his roster no matter who Lamoriello provided him with. Lambert, however, is having no such luck six games into the season. He’s done his best with what he has in front of him, but as the players learn his new style after four seasons with Trotz at the helm, there’s a serious question as to whether or not the team can figure out how to limit mistakes while learning how to play in this system.

The offense is also struggling. So far, the team has no goals from its centers and the defense continues to be what’s helping keep the Islanders in games. Against the Panthers on Sunday, the team had just one high-danger chance at even strength. Not a winning recipe for a team with playoff aspirations, especially when playing against a team in the Panthers trying to find a new identity.

Anthony Beauvillier is also really struggling after having a good game against the San Jose Sharks. He hasn’t been able to bring the same energy we’re used to seeing and seems unable to keep the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. Lambert has tried him with Mathew Barzal and Lee, though nothing seems to be working for Beauvillier outside of three points in five games.

Speaking of Barzal, he continues to be a pass-first player, which in and of itself isn’t a problem, but he’s quite literally passing up opportunities to get the puck to the net. Even if he shot to create a rebound opportunity, it would be better than trying to make a cross-ice pass through two defenders. As he goes, so too does the team, and right now, despite his six points, it’s clear adjustments need to be made. Palmieri is also starting the season as he did last year, with no goals to show for his efforts. He’s also looked a little clumsy, though the energy and effort are certainly there. Palmieri and the rest of the Islanders forwards need to get the proverbial monkey off their back.

After a rare two days off, the Islanders hit the ice for three games in four nights against the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, and defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. If the games against the Lightning and Panthers were the first games for the Islanders to match their club against the league’s best, which didn’t end well, this stretch will provide another opportunity to see how they stand up to true Cup contenders and perhaps gain some momentum. Will Lambert be able to find the chemistry he seeks? How will Lamoriello continue to play with his roster with limited options? The next month will tell us all we need to know about where the Islanders are headed. Buckle up.

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