The New York Islanders have started the season off on the right foot with a 12-8 record, one of the best in the Metropolitan Division. They look like a different team from the one that missed the playoffs last season, despite having mostly the same roster. They are faster and have a more potent offense, which has made the lineup look more balanced.
A lot of this has to do with first-year head coach Lane Lambert, who is allowing the Islanders to play more aggressively with an emphasis on offense. From defensemen joining the rush to skaters taking more shots on the net, they are averaging 3.30 goals per game.
Lambert’s system has particularly benefitted the younger players — some of them are on pace for breakout seasons. While the roster is veteran-heavy, a few young players have been able to step up and catapult the Islanders to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Oliver Wahlstrom is having a remarkable season and is one of the major reasons the offense has improved since 2021-22. He’s rounded out his game, allowing him to take advantage of his shooting ability and create scoring chances for his linemates. He has five goals and five assists through 20 games and, in his third season with the team, has finally established himself as a regular.
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A lot of his success this season can be credited to Lambert giving him a greater offensive role, where he plays in the top six and on the power play. However, Wahlstrom is also getting more open looks on the net in a faster offense and he is creating more scoring chances as a result. Against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 14, he played on the power play and, in the first period, scored the team’s opening goal, setting the tone for a dominant 4-2 win. The 22-year-old forward is in the last year of his entry-level contract, but based on how he’s playing, he looks poised to be a part of the offense for the foreseeable future.
It’s been an up-and-down season for Anthony Beauvillier but one with plenty of big moments. He recently scored the game-winning goal in overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 21 with a top-shelf shot on the rush, but he’s been adding a much-needed spark to the offense throughout the season. In back-to-back wins against the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 28 and Colorado Avalanche the following night, he added a goal and two assists, and his quick movement to the net helped fuel the offense in both wins.
Beauvillier has fallen into slumps, but his numbers have been respectable, with four goals and four assists so far. After a season when the 25-year-old took a step back, scoring only 12 goals and 22 assists, it’s been a pleasant surprise to see him re-establish himself. However, the biggest difference is that he’s found a unique role in the top six as a faster forward who can elevate an offense that relies heavily on it’s speed skaters.
Beauvillier is taking advantage of his skating ability, gashing opponents on the rush and with space. Most of his production has come on the rush this season, and his puck-handling ability, along with his speed, has made him a perfect complementary piece to Brock Nelson. He is on track to put together one of the best seasons of his young career under Lambert.
Noah Dobson is becoming one of the NHL’s elite defensemen. At 22 years old, he already creates turnovers in all three zones, turns defense into instant offense, and opens up the offense from the point. His six goals and eight assists lead the team’s defensemen, and his 35 blocked shots are second behind offseason addition Alexander Romanov, who often plays alongside Dobson for a great young pairing.
Dobson’s skating ability has separated him from the rest of the defense as he can limit opponents on the rush and effectively move the puck out of the defensive zone. Likewise, his instincts from the point have made him an elite threat offensively, finding open skaters and generating shots on net. With Lambert behind the bench, the team’s fast-paced game has elevated Dobson, impacting the team in many positive ways.
Other Islanders Thriving in Lambert’s System
Josh Bailey has become more of a shooter this season. Often playing on the same line as Mathew Barzal, he’s finding more open shots. While he is known for his passing, he has scored four goals and only two assists.
Likewise, veteran scorers Kyle Palmieri and Zach Parise are finding more open shots in the offensive zone, and they’re taking advantage, combining for 11 goals. They have added depth to the forward unit as they continue to instinctively find the back of the net.
On defense, Sebastian Aho has finally made his mark in the NHL. It was unclear who would win the starting job out of training camp between him and Robin Salo. Aho not only won the starting job but doesn’t look like he’s giving it up anytime soon. His skating ability in particular has helped the Islanders in transition to not only control the puck into the defensive zone but fuel the offense off of turnovers.
Islanders Struggling in Lambert’s System
Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Casey Cizikas have only combined for three goals and have struggled in the offensive zone under the new system. Both players typically thrive when the game slows down. They are two of the best penalty killers on a team that has played well shorthanded.
Lambert’s style has also put a lot of pressure on the two goaltenders. Fortunately, Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov have held up well with a combined .922 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.57 goals-against average (GAA) on 651 shots. However, they’ve allowed multiple goals in a handful of games, including a recent two-game stretch when they lost to the Nashville Predators, 5-4, on Nov. 17 and the Dallas Stars, 5-2, on Nov. 19.
There were a lot of questions about what the Islanders would look like under Lambert. Twenty games into the season, the Islanders have looked like one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. However, his aggressive approach can backfire and ultimately hurt them over the course of the season, especially if opposing teams can match their speed.
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.