Islanders Weekly: Injuries Open Door for Rookies

The New York Islanders’ season has not been a clean affair. Comeback wins helped keep them atop the Metropolitan Division standings for most of the first quarter of the season, but injuries and an inability to play a full 60 minutes ultimately dragged them below the playoff cut-off line. With just three wins in December, the Islanders desperately needed to right the ship, and they did that in their last two games, their most complete ones of the season. What’s more impressive is that they did it with rookies in the lineup after injuries opened the door for them to make their mark.

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Their comeback wins earlier this season showed a never-quit attitude from a team of grizzled veterans, which is always welcome, especially in the playoffs. However, when the magic ran out, the Islanders seemed lost. They had 18 wins through 34 games, though they never seemed to genuinely control the game outside of six to 10 minutes. That changed against the Florida Panthers on Dec. 23 and again against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 27.

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A huge reason the Islanders were able to put a choke hold on the Penguins was the play of the newly formed third line consisting of Zach Parise, J.G. Pageau, and Casey Cizikas. Injuries forced head coach Lane Lambert to get creative with his lines, and he did not miss when putting those three together. Beyond this new third line, the whole team played really well in both games, allowing just two goals and scoring 10 in the process.

Casey Cizikas New York Islanders
Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Mathew Barzal has also started to find the back of the net. In the last six games, he’s scored four, including two against the Penguins. Before that, he scored just three in the first 30 games. Brock Nelson and Anders Lee also continue to score at nearly half a goal per game, with 15 and 13, respectively, in 36 games. Noah Dobson is still dominant, ranking fourth on the team in points with 24, including a beautiful pass to Josh Bailey in their victory against the Penguins.

Islanders Injuries Open Door for Rookies

However, the bad news keeps coming for the Islanders, with more players absent this week. At the Islanders’ practice on Dec. 28, Oliver Wahlstrom, Simon Holmstrom, Palmieri, Cal Clutterbuck, Adam Pelech, and Semyon Varlamov were not present. Wahlstrom is the latest to fall victim to an injury after he delivered a crushing hit on Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. It’s not 100% clear how he was injured; it could have been the fall following the hit or Pierre-Olivier Joseph’s crosscheck to the back of his neck.

Related: 4 Takeaways From Islanders’ 5-1 Win vs Penguins

Varlamov’s injury is a huge concern for the Islanders, who have not liked to use backup Corey Schneider when one of Ilya Sorokin or Varlamov is out. With three sets of back-to-backs in January, the coaching staff and management are surely crossing their fingers that he will be ready to go before their west coast trip to start the new year.

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Schneider was the first goalie off the ice at practice ahead of the team’s matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets, so we may see Sorokin get some much-needed rest and Scheider’s first start since April 3, a 4-3 victory against his former team, the New Jersey Devils. The Islanders are 2-0-0 against the Blue Jackets this season. The good news is, according to Lambert, that Varlamov is skating again and thinks he’s getting closer to a return.

And while the injuries are an issue for a team looking to get back in the playoffs after missing the postseason in 2021-22, rookies have had the opportunity to get some ice time. One of the team’s top prospects, Aatu Raty, has been impressive in his first two NHL games, scoring in his NHL debut against the Panthers on Dec. 23 with hopes he can fight for a long-term spot in the lineup.

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“I obviously want to stay here, but for me, it’s just trying to help the team play as well as they can. There’s so much stuff that goes into it, but I’m really happy to be here, and I’m going to fight for the spot. Always, always feels good to contribute,” Räty told amNewYork, “and especially the goal. Even though let’s say, I didn’t score, I still felt like I had a great game. Just kind of doing my role out there.”

With Aatu Raty centering the fourth line, Cizikas added some incredible energy to a line that has played so well all season. With Kyle Palmieri and Clutterbuck skating again, Lambert and general manager Lou Lamoriello have some big questions to answer.

Do you break up a formidable third line just to put veterans back in the lineup? That’s not even giving the proper credit to Hudson Fasching, who continues to be a force every time he’s on the ice, bringing the missing energy and tenacity we were only seeing from Pageau, Cizikas, and Parise. Assuming Holmstrom isn’t injured and can be returned to Bridgeport, and Wahlstrom’s injury isn’t long-term, could we see the following lineup?

Bailey – Barzal – Wahlstrom
Lee – Nelson – Beauvillier
Parise – Pageau – Cizikas
Fasching – Raty – Palmieri

It’s a bottom-six-heavy lineup, no question, but Matt Martin has slowed down considerably this season despite looking better in general. Clutterbuck has been in and out of the lineup multiple times this season and has been largely ok. But Fasching provides a huge boost to the lineup and deserves to continue, and Palmieri will just be getting back into the swing of things and could provide a nice addition next to Raty. Even switching Wahlstrom and Palmieri and Beauvllier with Bailey still works pretty well. It isn’t the long-term solution for the Islanders’ offense, particularly as fans continue to wait for a significant addition to the first line, but it creates a much deeper lineup with plenty of scoring punch, veteran presence, and an infusion of youth.

The Islanders are still very much in the playoff race despite an up-and-down season, and with the infusion of a few new faces, they’ve shown they may be able to turn things around long-term. There are still plenty of questions, but if they can get a winning streak together and claw their way back into one of the wild-card spots or even further up the standings by the end of January, we could see the Islanders return to the playoffs, where we all know they can make some noise.