The New York Islanders entered the 2021-22 season as media darlings, earning praise for their back-to-back Eastern Conference Final appearances, how they got there, and the offseason moves made to bolster their offense. Expectations were also raised considerably, as many adopted a “cup or bust” mantra before the puck dropped on the season.
But before their first game, the team faced serious adversity, staring down the barrel of a 13-game road trip before they christen UBS Arena in November. Here’s a look at the first week of the Islanders’ season, including the dreaded road trip.
Islanders’ First Line Shines
The first line was a bright spot in the Islanders’ first three games, getting into an early groove to give the offense a spark during a topsy-turvy start to the season. Captain Anders Lee’s return was a huge boost to the first line, and Kyle Palmieri appears to be a great fit alongside Lee and Mathew Barzal, generating quality chances and controlling the puck for long stretches, which led to Barzal’s first goal of the season.
Palmieri’s ability as a shooter and a passer will help raise Barzal’s game and, in turn, help get the puck to the net to give Lee a few more opportunities. For the first time in years, the Islanders have a formidable first line on paper and on the ice.
Young Oliver Wahlstrom also showed a spark early on, living up to his trigger-man persona by netting a goal in the team’s second game against the Florida Panthers and two more against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday. He struggled during the preseason, catching the ire of head coach Barry Trotz. But he’s remained in the lineup so far without much in the way of competition, especially after Trotz-favorite Leo Komarov was placed on waivers earlier this week to make room for Matt Martin’s return from injury. Wahlstrom’s ability to create offense is critical for the Islanders if they hope to score by committee without any outside help. Three goals in three games is a heck of a start for the 21-year-old.
On the goal (above), note Wahlstrom’s positioning within the team’s forecheck structure, which should have him back in Trotz’s good graces, possibly more than scoring goals. He knows the pass from Seth Jones is a possibility and is in a perfect position to pick it off and head into the zone as the Blackhawks look to the neutral zone. He follows that up with a heads-up play towards the net and a beautiful finish. The Islanders have a great goal-scorer at their disposal this season.
Islanders’ Defensive Woes
The addition of Zdeno Chara was far from anyone’s choice for general manager Lou Lamoriello to solidify the defense. However, many – including myself – understand what Chara is capable of on and off the ice, particularly in helping Noah Dobson’s development. Chara mentored Charlie McAvoy with the Boston Bruins and helped turn him into one of the NHL’s top defensemen.
However, Chara is struggling. Against the Carolina Hurricanes, he was beaten to the outside by former Islander Nino Niederreiter to make it a 4-2 game, the first of the season.
It wasn’t a great look for the veteran, who was victimized by Barzal in last year’s playoffs on a similar play. Trotz had some positive words for Chara during his media availability on Tuesday afternoon, stating that Chara will be ok: “He’s been okay. We brought him in to defend and get pucks out, be a penalty killer, I think he can do that. There will be an adjustment period for him and for us.”
Trotz also mentioned that defenseman Sebastian Aho will get a shot if the Islanders’ defensive woes continue: “He deserves a shot. He’s been an absolute pro. I don’t know if it will be next game or what, but he deserves a shot because of his attitude, his work ethic, and his ability.” If Aho can stay in the lineup, Trotz will likely feel more comfortable giving Chara and Andy Greene nights off to rest during the first 82-game campaign in two years.
In the meantime, Trotz put the defensive pairs into a blender for the team’s first three games, sheltering Dobson quite a bit and, surprisingly, giving Chara a lot of minutes. We’ll see how long this lasts or if Chara gets a rest this weekend against the Arizona Coyotes.
Behind the Bench
Trotz was his usual reflective and thoughtful self on Tuesday afternoon, saying the Islanders have to get to their game and not worry about the result so much. The NHL season is a marathon, not a sprint, which the Islanders know all too well.
It took until the third period on Tuesday night for the Islanders to look like themselves, scoring timely goals and shutting the Blackhawks down in all three zones. It’s tough to say if they have turned a corner, but this was a good sign for a team that looked shaky out of the gate.
Who’s Trending and the Week Ahead
- Sophomore goalie Ilya Sorokin had a tough start to his second season, with little help from his teammates. Game two fell a bit more on his shoulders, but his outstanding performance against the Blackhawks is a huge boost for him and the team.
- Wahlstrom is on fire, a welcomed sight to a team usually starving for goals. If he can add consistent scoring to the third line, the Islanders will have its deepest lineup in years.
- Defenders not named Adam Pelech or Ryan Pulock have looked a little shaky to start. Though they’re all playing with new partners, they’ll need to get thing sorted out in short order.
- The “Killer Bs” – the line of Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier, and Josh Bailey – were a minus-3 against the Panthers, not a good look for a line with a lot of experience in the Trotz system and a ton of upside. Beauvillier scored against the Blackhawks, but the line was in the midst of a change. In fact, Wahlstrom was part of this goal as well, adding to an already complete game.
Storylines for the Week Ahead
The Islanders continue their road trip on Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, followed by back-to-back games. A five-day break will give the team some time to regroup before heading south to Nashville.
- Tonight: The Blue Jackets were underestimated by many this offseason, but are off to a good start. The Islanders will need to hold off Patrik Laine and the newly acquired Jakub Voráček to be successful in Ohio.
- Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes’ season is going as well as could have been expected, which is to say not great. While former Islander Andrew Ladd has scored his first goal since March 10, 2020, there aren’t a ton of positive stories coming out of the desert.
- Vegan Golden Knights: Injuries are piling up in the Sin City. Can the Islanders take advantage of a banged up roster in just their second ever visit to Vegas?
Stay tuned for future editions of Islanders Weekly, published every Thursday throughout the season.
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.