Islanders Weekly: Lee & Nelson Raise Questions About Team’s Core

Since the calendar flipped to March, the New York Islanders have looked like a different team. What’s interesting about this change is that the results haven’t been spurred by their younger players, as expected. Instead, the catalyst has been what many have called their “aging” core, which isn’t entirely inaccurate, but an understandable comment. Led by captain Anders Lee and second-line center Brock Nelson, the older part of the Islanders’ core is helping to prove general manager Lou Lamoriello right for his comments about believing in this team, but raising questions about the roster’s future.

Islanders’ Core in Question

With the 2022 NHL trade deadline in the rearview mirror, the Islanders are now understandably looking ahead to the offseason, and — coming sooner than you think — the 2022-23 campaign. The team’s core is a mix of early-to-mid 20-something players, and those at, or just over, 30 years old. In early March, Lamoriello began the public relations tour, stating he was standing by his core, which was controversial to say the least. Since then, Nelson and Lee have been absolutely on fire. They both lead the league in scoring in March, despite the Islanders not making up any ground in the standings over the last week or so.

Nelson’s run is the first of its kind in over 25 years; the last player to score at least 12 goals in a calendar month was the criminally underappreciated Ziggy Palffy in March 1996. Nelson can tie Palffy’s mark this week with two games in March remaining on the Islanders’ schedule. As Islanders’ play-by-play broadcaster Brendan Burke also noted on the broadcast during the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday, Nelson and Lee are the first set of Islanders teammates with 11 or more goals in a month since Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier in 1986.

Related: Islanders Weekly: Lamoriello Believes in the Core

All of this to say, the Islanders’ core isn’t simply aging, but it’s in flux. Lamoriello has made it abundantly clear that he stands by his core. It’s becoming obvious that who makes up the core is going to change this summer, hanging a large question mark over this group moving forward. Lee and Nelson are certainly showing their worth, but as Lamoriello has stated a number of times since his first media availability, a number of players have underperformed well below their expectations, specifically on offense.

It’s also worth picking apart what Lamoriello said in his press conferences, specifically what was said directly following the trade deadline on March 21st. Many fans heard him say they want to see what they have and interpreted that as “let the kids play.” However, given that A) The Bridgeport Islanders are in the midst of a playoff race and, B) the New York Islanders don’t necessarily have the roster room means that’s unlikely.

On top of that, head coach Barry Trotz has been tough on younger Islander players in Bridgeport and on Long Island, namely youngster Robin Salo, who many believe could get the “Noah Dobson” treatment next season with the big club. However, for now, Salo is making that a difficult decision recently, and not in the right way. “He hasn’t played as well as he’s needed to play,” Trotz said in early March. “He should be an impact and the best defenseman. He hasn’t been.”

Related: Islanders Have 5 Things to Focus on the Rest of the Season

In his post-trade deadline press conference, Lamoriello said “We have to see where our players are at. None of our players are solidified in anything. We have core players in our minds that we don’t speak to, but there might have to be transactions within. Not just adding, I don’t think we’ll get better just added a player. We’re going to get better by making hockey trades.”

Lamoriello continued, pointing some attention to where he, and many fans, think the team needs to improve next season. “Over the next period of time, we’ll learn more about our scorers. That’s where we’ve certainly underproduced this year to this point. In fact, disappointing. We’ll see where our forwards are at between now and the end of the year.”

Reading between the lines a bit, and using some of the rumors from around the trade deadline as context, there are a couple of players – namely Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier – who may be on their way out or, at the very least, are under the microscope, so to speak. Most everyone else appears safe in one way, shape, or form, save for some pending UFAs, specifically Zdeno Chara. Bailey’s cap hit and performance this season could be a key reason he’s headed elsewhere if a deal can be made. He has two years left at $5 million per season, which could be attractive for teams like the Arizona Coyotes or even the Buffalo Sabres, the latter of which have taken big strides this season and could use a veteran like Bailey to show them the way forward.

Josh Bailey New York Islanders
Josh Bailey, New York Islanders (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Beauvillier, on the other hand, continues to be a streaky player who has been set to have a “breakout season” dating back to 2019. He’s been good as of late, contributing to Lee and Nelson’s resurgence, but as the Islanders look for a left-handed defender to (presumably) play next to Dobson and shore up the second paid, he may be the chip they need to get a good player in return in addition to a pick or a prospect. What’s interesting is, it may be completely out of Beauvillier’s hands. Even if he were to have an amazing 18 games to end the season, it would only put an exclamation point on his streakiness as a forward. If anything, it would raise his trade value for other teams, and may not save him and his future with the Islanders.

Beauvillier and Bailey add a grey area to what the team considers its overall core in addition to its younger, more long-term core players. Could there be others who haven’t performed to Lamoriello’s or Trotz’s standards? It’s possible, though given many other players’ contracts, like J.G. Pageau and Kyle Palmieri, it wouldn’t be easy to move most of these players. Lamoriello does have his ways, however, so the offseason is set to be very interesting for a team looking to bounce back to Stanley Cup contenders, or even favorites.

Islanders Storyline

Ilya Sorokin left Sunday’s game against the Lightning with an injury and it doesn’t look like he’ll return as soon as many would have hoped. It appears Corey Schneider was called up from Bridgeport on Monday, though no formal announcement regarding Sorokin or the call up will come before the Islanders’ optional skate on Tuesday at 11:30 AM if it happens at all. Semyon Varlamov may have his hands full moving forward, as Trotz has clearly shown he doesn’t trust Schneider in the nets given how long he’s been called up previously and let Varolamov or Sorokin take the reigns. Varlamov will be able to get a little bit of a groove going with Sorokin out and prove to himself, above all, that he can still play a heavy workload after recovering from an injury earlier this season.

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