5 Reasons for Islanders’ Disappointing Season

The New York Islanders entered the 2021-22 season with Stanley Cup aspirations. After reaching the Semifinal in back-to-back seasons, the team looked poised to overcome the final hurdle and win the first Stanley Cup championship since the 1982-83 season.

Related: Islanders Need To Find Right Forwards For Barzal

Instead, the season was a great disappointment. The Islanders ended up with a 37-35-10 and missed the playoffs for the first time in head coach Barry Trotz’s tenure with the team. Moreover, throughout the season, the Islanders looked like a shell of the team that was dominant in previous seasons, failing to control the puck and pace of games.

Some of the issues on the Islanders’ roster directly resulted in the disappointing season, but a lot of issues were out of their control. Over the year, whatever could go wrong, would go wrong. They hope the past season was a bump in the road, but a lot of their problems could point to long-term struggles within the current roster.

Islanders’ Slow Start

In the NHL, a team can’t clinch a playoff spot in the first two months of the season, but with an awful record, they can certainly eliminate themselves from playoff contention. This season’s Islanders are the case in point as they started the season with only five wins in their first 20 games. They also started the season with 13 consecutive road games, and the schedule caught up to them, as they lost 13 contests in a row, starting with a 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 7 and lasting over a month with the final loss coming in overtime to the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 5. The team returned to form in the second half of the season with a 21-18-4 record following the All-Star break. However, the slow start put them too far behind in the Eastern Conference as the team was trying to catch up for the rest of the season.

Chara & Defensive Struggles

Weeks before the season started, the Islanders signed Zdeno Chara to a one-year contract. At the time, the acquisition looked like the final addition for a Stanley Cup contending team that needed a left-side defenseman after trading Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings. Chara had a strong season on the defensive end of the ice with 4.1 defensive point shares and 90 blocked shots while also passing Chris Chelios for most games played by a defenseman in NHL history. However, the move ultimately set the Islanders’ defensive unit back, and the team struggled as a result.

Zdeno Chara New York Islanders
Zdeno Chara, New York Islanders (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

The Islanders allowed only 2.85 goals per game, the eighth-best in the NHL, indicating that the defense once again was a strength of the team. However, after allowing only 2.79 goals per game in the 2019-20 season and 2.23 goals per game last season, the unit took a noticeable step back. A lot contributed to the struggles, but one of the reoccurring issues for the Islanders’ defense was the inability to control the neutral zone and outskate the opponent to the puck. Chara, along with 39-year-old veteran Andy Greene, gave the team a slower defensive unit.

The Islanders not only struggled in the neutral zone and defensive zone, but the defense also struggled in the modern game. Throughout the season, the team struggled to clear the puck out of their zone after creating a turnover, and they also had a difficult time handling the puck and starting up the offense. While Noah Dobson emerged as a great puck-moving defenseman, helping start up the offense and establishing a scoring presence from the point with 13 goals and 38 assists, the unit collectively struggled in the two-way game, with Dobson being the only double-digit goal scorer on defense.

Noah Dobson New York Islanders
Noah Dobson was one of the bright spots on the defense, with 51 points. Noah Dobson, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Islanders called up some of the younger defensemen from their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Bridgeport Islanders, throughout the season. The younger skaters like Sebastian Aho, Grant Hutton, and Robin Salo all showed promise and great skating ability, but in their first games in the NHL, they struggled on the defensive end of the ice. The team was constantly juggling the blue line skaters, and whether it was a slower but more experienced unit or a fast but inexperienced one, it caused the defense to take a step back.

Islanders’ Injuries

The Islanders were plagued with injuries from the start of the season. The inability to start the optimal roster for most of 2021-22 not only set the Islanders back but prevented them from making up ground in the Eastern Conference. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov missed the first nine games of the season with an injury, forcing Ilya Sorokin to become the starter. In the first eight games, the young Sorokin was overworked and forced to start multiple games on short rest while Varlamov slowly returned to the lineup.

The Islanders were already struggling, but then the COVID-19 outbreak sidelined the majority of the roster. The team had to call up multiple players until the NHL finally postponed a handful of games following a 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, a game where Dobson and Scott Mayfield were the only opening-night starters available on the defensive unit.

Scott Mayfield New York Islanders
Scott Mayfield, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While every team deals with injuries, the Islanders lost two of their most valuable players just as the team was trying to regain its footing. Brock Nelson, who finished the season as the team’s leading goal-scorer with 37 goals, missed multiple weeks with a lower-body injury, while Ryan Pulock, arguably the team’s best defenseman, missed 11 weeks with a lower-body injury. Losing Nelson and Pulock particularly cost the Islanders at a time when the team was desperately trying to make up ground and put together a playoff-caliber roster.

For the final few months of the season, the Islanders had a rather healthy roster and were piling on the wins as a result. The final wave of injuries only hit the team after the trade deadline, but the loss of both Mayfield and forward Cal Clutterbuck was the dagger in a difficult season. Many teams point to injuries as an excuse for their struggles, but the team failed to play their ideal roster for the majority of the season, and a club that relies on its depth played the season without key contributors throughout the lineup.

Barzal, Beauvillier & Forwards Failing to Step Up

The offense averaged only 2.83 goals per game, and despite the offense improving in the second half of the season, the forward unit let the Islanders down. Trotz juggled line combinations, searching for the ideal shifts. And once he paired Nelson with Anders Lee, the offense took off. However, the other forward lines struggled with some skaters taking a step back this season.

Mathew Barzal noticeably struggled as part of the line changes. He only scored 15 goals this season, the lowest in his six-year career, and struggled to find open shots on the net. The 24-year-old forward is a great puck distributor, with 44 assists this season, but with Lee playing on a different shift, he couldn’t find open skaters in the offensive zone. Moreover, Barzal was constantly playing alongside different skaters, including Zach Parise, Kyle Palmieri, and Oliver Wahlstrom, and the constant shuffling prevented him from forming great chemistry with the other forwards.

Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Anthony Beauvillier, meanwhile, had a season to forget, with only 12 goals and 22 assists. He was expected to take a big leap in the offense and on the Islanders’ roster altogether. Instead, the forward failed to find a place in the offense despite playing alongside Nelson and Lee for the majority of the season. With the struggles from the past season, the Islanders may look to trade the 24-year-old winger in the offseason with the team looking to upgrade an offense that struggled.

Islanders’ Playoff Fatigue

In the bigger picture of the NHL, it’s no coincidence that three of the four teams that reached the Stanley Cup Semifinals last year failed to reach the playoffs this year. While the Tampa Bay Lightning clinched a playoff spot and will look to win the Stanley Cup for the third season in a row, the Islanders and Vegas Golden Knights both missed the playoffs, while the Montreal Canadiens had one of the worst seasons in their franchise history. Last season was a condensed 56-game season, but one that took a toll on the players, and the deep playoff runs were exhausting for the Semifinal teams. The Islanders entered the season following consecutive Semifinal appearances, and the surplus of games affected the team’s performance this season.

Other Reasons the Islanders Missed the Playoffs

The Islanders’ roster has its strengths and weaknesses. However, the glaring issue of an aging unit cost the team immensely. The average age of the Islanders roster was 30.1 years old, the oldest team in the league, and oftentimes, it showed as the team was outskated to the puck and overwhelmed in all three zones.

After missing the playoffs, the Islanders face a crucial offseason. The team has its issues that could cause them to unravel, as the past season has demonstrated. But likewise, the team has proven that they are only a few players away from competing for the Stanley Cup. They have to prioritize acquiring a star-caliber player in the offseason, a player that can not only cover up some of the issues on the roster but put the team over the top.