The New York Islanders were trending in the wrong direction heading into the NHL All-Star break. Following the team’s recent 3-0 loss at the hands of the Seattle Kraken, there are a lot of questions surrounding the construction of this team for the rest of this season, and beyond. General manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz clearly have a plan, but that plan hasn’t worked out this season.
The roster as they envisioned hasn’t been on the ice together very much this season given the various and sundry reasons we won’t get into here, but when they have, it hasn’t looked good. This begs the question: is the team as we see it now, and have largely seen it over the last two or three seasons, going to change dramatically between now and October for the beginning of the 2022-23 campaign?
Islanders’ Goaltending Questions
We’ve seen a few different goalie tandems since 2018, ultimately resulting in Russian-duo Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov as the current one-two punch. Though a mid-season move doesn’t seem plausible at the moment for Varlamov, if the team throws up the white flag (or whatever the Lamoriello equivalent of that is) it’s possible the Islanders try to ride the rest of the regular season out with Sorokin and Cory Schneider.
For Islander fans, mentioning Schneider as the backup may not make a ton of sense, as many would point to Jakob Skarek’s recent rise with the Bridgeport Islanders. That’s exactly the point. As this is being written, Skarek has played just 54 American Hockey League (AHL) games, on top of 14 in the ECHL. At 22, he needs more time to develop, at the very least the rest of this season. Allowing him to continue playing well on a regular basis instead of sparingly getting games behind Sorokin is likely the better choice.
If Skarek can continue playing well and grow in the offseason, a Sorokin-Skarek tandem doesn’t seem too far out of the question if Lamoriello decides to use his resources elsewhere, which some watching the team’s scoring and defensive woes may agree is wise. Skarek’s lack of experience is definitely a caveat here considering how Lamoriello and Trotz have treated younger players, but with limited starts — Sorokin does get better the more he plays, and he’s said as much — perhaps this tandem could work out in more ways than one.
Revamping the Islanders’ Defense
It’s clear bringing Zdeno Chara back to the Islanders was not Lamoriello’s first choice. And despite Trotz’s defense of Chara and his play, the back-end as we’ve seen it is in desperate need of an overhaul. NHL All-Star, Adam Pelech, and Ryan Pulock aren’t in question, and neither is youngster Noah Dobson. Scott Mayfield is likely more of a third-pairing defenseman on other teams, leaving spots next to him and Dobson up for grabs. The struggle here is to find two left-handed defensemen, one of which is a puck mover that can skate.
Many thought that offensive-defenseman could be Dobson, but though his game has evolved, his offensive abilities are different than the team’s current need. His strength lies in the offensive zone, and not as a defender that can “carry the mail,” so to speak. The Islanders need the latter, and with lefty Jakob Chychrun’s name being bandied about with some connections to the Islanders, it’s easy to imagine the immediate impact he would have on the Islanders at both ends of the ice. Youngster Robin Salo could be this type of player in the future; he was used an awful lot by Trotz when the Islanders needed defenseman. Problem is, he’s a great trade chip for the Islanders to fill other needs, which we’ll get to later.
That still leaves another lefty defender needed to fill out the roster. Andy Greene could return next season, but the elder statesman would be more serviceable as the team’s seventh defenseman than a regular, though he’s not been the issue by any stretch. There are names that would seemingly fit well next to either Dobson or Mayfield, but that may depend more on the team’s cap room than anything else, especially given their offensive needs heading into next season.
Islanders’ Offense in Flux
It’s no secret the Islanders’ offense has been less than ideal over the last few seasons. Add in the decade-plus search for a top-line winger, and this story is nauseating. But before we get to the first line woes, there are plenty of other questions to tackle. Starting with the fourth line, or the identity line as it’s more commonly known, it remains to be seen if veteran Cal Clutterbuck will be brought back after his contract expires this summer. He’s played well this season, but as the team tries to get younger, or at least they should be aiming towards that goal, it may be time to depart with the long-time checking forward.
Casey Cizikas’ contract was just signed and has another five seasons on it, so he isn’t going anywhere. He’s a solid fourth-line center with offensive upside, and he can kill penalties. That leaves Matt Martin, who has two more seasons following this one left on his deal. Could he and bruiser Ross Johnston switch roles for the last two years of Martin’s deal? Austin Czarnik could also be a solid, and cheaper, addition to the fourth line in Clutterbuck’s spot. The long-time Bridgeport Sound Tiger/Islander has had short stints with the big club, but hasn’t found his place, getting waived as recently as this week. This could be his opportunity if he’s able to make enough noise in Bridgeport the rest of this season and continue to play well when called upon.
The third line center by J.G. Pageau may be the only one left after this season if Oliver Wahlstrom moves into the top six and Zach Parise doesn’t, or isn’t, asked to return. If Wahlstrom moves up, you could see the longest-tenured Islander in Josh Bailey move down to play on the left side of Pageau, leaving the right-wing spot up for grabs, an easier fix that could happen internally. Kyle Palmieri, Pageau, and Bailey would provide a veteran third line with quite a bit of offensive upside. Would Trotz go for it?
The top six may see the most change in terms of newcomers; there’s a possibility for at least two new faces, though “what-ifs” rule the roost in these scenarios. On the second line, Brock Nelson in the middle is probably one of the more consistent offensive players on the roster, save for Mathew Barzal. Building off of our theory earlier, Bailey is down on the third line with Pageau, leaving his spot available for Oliver Wahlstrom next to Nelson. Anthony Beauvilier would also stay put on that second line, unless he’s used in a trade for the aforementioned offensive-defenseman, leaving the left side open to be filled by trade or by an internal candidate.
The first line, well, stop us if you’ve heard this before: Barzal will be again looking for a new top-line winger to ride shotgun to him flanking captain Anders Lee. There are a number of unrestricted free agents that could be testing the market this summer. Could the Islanders finally fine the right player?
It’s safe to say Lamoriello zigged when he should have zagged this offseason, but he and Trotz have done a good job over the last three years to tweak the roster with a lot of positive results, even if it wasn’t clear at first. The tweaks they made didn’t work this year, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. However, for the first time during their tenure, it seems they need to add some major pieces to get the Islanders back into the playoff conversation.
Jon Zella is a 31-year-old, Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.