The New York Islanders are coming off a rough season where they failed to make the playoffs with a 37-35-10 record. The disappointing season ended up forcing general manager Lou Lamoriello and the front office to fire head coach Barry Trotz and promote Lane Lambert as the next head coach, signaling a busy offseason ahead. The difficult season highlighted some of the underlying issues within the roster and particularly some players struggled in different roles on the team.
Some of the players who had disappointing seasons will likely not be on the Islanders next season, with the front office looking to make a trade to acquire talented players to help out the forward and defensive units. However, some of the skaters on the roster that struggled need to play a different role in the lineup, one that takes advantage of their skillsets.
Anthony Beauvillier had a season to forget. After a great 2020-21 campaign that culminated in a Game 6 overtime winning goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Semifinal, the young forward was expected to play a major role on the Islanders roster. Instead, he took a step back, scoring only 12 goals and 22 assists despite playing alongside two of the Islanders’ best forwards Anders Lee and Brock Nelson for most of the season.
One of the issues for Beauvillier throughout the season was finding a role in the forward unit. The 24-year-old forward couldn’t find his shot in the offensive zone and struggled to effectively carry the puck into the offensive zone and start up the offense. While he ended up playing the second half of the season on the Islanders’ top line, he struggled as a puck distributor and failed to benefit from Nelson’s playmaking ability both on the rush and in the offensive zone.
While Beauvillier needs to take more shots, something that has benefited him in previous seasons, a forward shift that optimizes his skillsets is necessary for a bounce-back season. His best attributes have been speed on the wing and the ability to find the back of the net on open shots. The young forward can play alongside Mathew Barzal next season, another fast skater who can open up the ice, especially on the rush, and similarly, Jean-Gabriel Pageau can set up scoring chances as a great puck-handling center. Otherwise, the Islanders have to find a complete skater in the offseason that can set up open shots.
Josh Bailey had a tale of two seasons last year, scoring only three goals and 17 assists in the first half of the season before 11 goals and 13 assists in the second half. The shift in his production came along with the Islanders’ offense rebounding but also in a different role on the forward unit for the 32-year-old skater.
Throughout Bailey’s career, he has been a puck distributor with 30 assists or more in six of his 14 seasons in the NHL. Last season started similarly with Bailey playing alongside Beauvillier and Nelson with the role of finding open skaters in the offensive zone. However, halfway through the season, the Islanders made significant line changes and moved him to play alongside Pageau. The change made him more of a shooter and allowed him to finish the season strong as he benefitted from Pageau handling the puck and creating open ice.
The question is, what role should Bailey play on the forward unit next season, the one he’s played his entire career or the one he thrived in last year? A lot of his role depends on what the roster looks like next season and if the Islanders are going to acquire a goal scorer or another facilitator for the offense.
However, Bailey is shifting towards a role in the bottom six and as a result should see less ice time, regardless of the skillset he uses. In all likelihood, he will return to distributing the puck in the offensive zone, something he’s mastered throughout his 14-year-career but the veteran can’t be heavily relied on, as he was in previous seasons.
Oliver Wahlstrom struggled throughout last season, playing on multiple lines and struggling to tap into his skill set. The 21-year-old forward scored 13 goals but only 11 assists and averaged only 12:04 ice time per game in a limited role. He has a great shot from the wing and the Islanders hoped that playing alongside Barzal last season would optimize his scoring touch. Unfortunately, the duo struggled last season, failing to form a strong connection.
Next season, Wahlstrom needs to establish himself on a forward line where he could benefit from a puck distributor. However, he also needs to play a greater role in the offense with more ice time and time on the power play. He is one of the more talented forwards on the Islanders and ideally, should play on one of the top two lines as a result. While it might take time to find the right mix for the young forward, the team will greatly improve an offense that struggled last year, scoring only 2.79 goals per game, if they can take advantage of his playmaking on the wing.
Other Islanders That Need Different Roles Next Year
Like Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows is another young forward that the Islanders need to slowly integrate into the roster and make him a regular starter. Bellows scored only six goals and 13 assists last season, but with a larger role in the offense next year, he can give the Islanders a powerful forward presence. Likewise, the defensive unit is going to look different next season, especially on the left side, but allowing Grant Hutton or Robin Salo to impact the unit will allow the team to not only get younger at the position but become a faster and better puck-moving team on the blue line.
The Islanders reached the Stanley Cup Semifinal in back-to-back seasons with the entire roster not only buying in but playing distinct roles on the team. Lambert is going to have his hands full in his first season as the Islanders’ head coach and finding the right line combinations along with some of the best players in optimal roles will be pivotal for his team’s success.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.