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What Went Wrong: New York Islanders

Mathew Barzal

Mathew Barzal

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to What Went Wrong where we’ll look at each team that failed to make the playoffs. We’ll also end each article by highlighting some players of particular interest on the squad. Those are players who either left something to be desired during the 2021-22 campaign, have significant untapped upside, or have some big underlining questions surrounding them going into the offseason.

We’ve already covered the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes, Seattle Kraken, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Today we’re looking at the New York Islanders.

We can’t talk about the Islanders’ season without first mentioning the pandemic. Every team had to deal with COVID, but that doesn’t mean every team had to deal with it equally. After reaching the Conference Finals in back-to-back campaigns (technically semifinals in 2021), the Islanders were a respectable 5-2-2 out of the gate this season. However, they were plagued by COVID earlier than most teams and while that would eventually lead to postponed games, initially the Islanders were simply forced to play without many of their key players.

Under those unique circumstances, the Islanders collapsed. They lost 11 straight games from Nov. 7-Dec. 5, dropping them to 5-10-5. Finally, with the Islanders’ situation still a problem and the rest of the league dealing with the pandemic as well, the Islanders saw eight games postponed from Dec. 20-Jan. 11. For the most part, they were a solid team for the remainder of the season, but not good enough to dig themselves out of that early hole, especially with how top heavy the Eastern Conference was. The Washington Capitals ended up with the final Wild Card seed with a 44-26-12 record. The Islanders were the next best team, but that still left them far out of the playoffs with their 37-35-10 finish.

We can’t blame all of the Islanders’ woes on the pandemic though. For years now their offense has been lackluster and they didn’t do anything to address that in the summer of 2021. Instead, things got worse. Jordan Eberle was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft and offensive defenseman Nick Leddy was dealt to Detroit. On another team, those losses wouldn’t have been as significant, but the Islanders’ offense was thin to begin with.

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Ultimately, 83 players reached the 60-point milestone in 2021-22 and not a single one of them played for the Islanders. Brock Nelson did score 37 goals, but he was one of just two players (the other being Anders Lee) to even score 20 goals. The Islanders averaged 2.79 goals per game, which put them in the bottom third of the league offensively and gave them little margin for error.

That made goaltender Semyon Varlamov’s less than ideal 2021-22 campaign a bigger problem than it might have been. He had a 10-17-2 record, 2.91 GAA, and .911 save percentage in 32 games. Ilya Sorokin picked up the slack and even got a handful of Vezina Trophy votes, but the Islanders were really built around the need to have high-end goaltending basically every night and they didn’t get that.

At this point we typically look towards the future and talk about what changes have been made and what young players are coming up, but things are a little weird in that regard for the Islanders. New York does have some young players, most notably, Noah Dobson, who is shaping up to be a fantastic defenseman, Mathew Barzal, who hasn’t developed into a star he initially appeared to be but is nevertheless a solid top-six forward, and Ilya Sorokin, who looks like he might prove to be one of the best goaltenders of his generation.

At the same time though, the Islanders are mostly a veteran team and if we’re being honest, that veteran group doesn’t look like its enough to win a championship or even come particularly close, especially when it’s measured against the roster that the Colorado Avalanche just won the Stanley Cup with. So what do the Islanders do? Blow it up and focus for the future with the likes of Barzal, Dobson, and Sorokin as the base for the rebuild or attempt a smaller retool? So far, it GM Lou Lamoriello’s approach has been to do very little.

At the time of writing his last trade was on Nov. 4, 2021. The Islanders do have the 13th overall pick in the 2022 draft, but only five picks in total, so they’re not exactly in an ideal position to restock. The Islanders also don’t have any major UFAs this summer, so it’s entirely possible that they’ll feature almost the same roster in 2022-23.

In fact, the biggest change so far looks to be their coaching. The Islanders surprisingly parted ways with bench boss Barry Trotz on May 9. Though they obviously didn’t do well this season, a lot of the team’s success in recent years has been attributed to Trotz. The belief was that he was instrumental in making the Islanders more than the sum of their parts. Lane Lambert will have big shoes to fill as the new head coach, though to be fair to him he does come with an extensive resume and has more than earned an opportunity to show what he can do.

Who knows, if not for the pandemic derailing the Islanders early in the season, perhaps they would have made the playoffs despite their shortcomings. Maybe I’m being too harsh on a team that, after their success in 2019-20 and 2020-21, deserves a chance to roll it back and play a campaign under normal circumstances. Or maybe the 2021-22 campaign simply casted a light on the weaknesses that were already there in the Islanders, just beneath the surface. Weaknesses that, if ignored, will simply continue to plague the Islanders and keep them from greatness.

Players to Watch:

Noah Dobson – The biggest bright spot of the Islanders 2021-22 campaign was Noah Dobson. He played in limited roles with the Islanders in 2019-20 and 2020-21, but this season is when he really took off. He had 13 goals and 51 points in 81 games while averaging 21:28 minutes. In particular, he played an important role on the Islanders’ power play, which is where 22 of those points came from. It’s worth noting that while the Islanders were a weak team offensively, they did finish a respectable 12th in the league by converting on 22.1% of their power play opportunities. Dobson helped them do that and he’s still just 22-years-old. That said, he’s a restricted free agent now and it’ll be interesting to see what the results of those negotiations are. Will the Islanders sign him to a long-term deal under the belief that he’ll be a cornerstone of their franchise for years to come or will they err on the side of caution? Beyond the 2021-22 campaign, his resume isn’t much to look at, and while his potential is clear, they might ultimately agree to a bridge deal to give him more time to prove himself.

Semyon VarlamovSemyon Varlamov wasn’t fantastic last season, but he didn’t have a disastrous year either. Still, the 2022-23 campaign will be an interesting season for him. At this point Ilya Sorokin seems to have established himself as the starting goaltender, but Varlamov certainly isn’t your typical backup. Will Varlamov force the Islanders into a 1A/1B situation? Keep in mind that Varlamov is entering into the final season of his four-year, $20 million deal, so this season will be of particular importance to him. He would also be an obvious trade candidate at the deadline if the Islanders don’t bounce back next season.

Mathew Barzal – Early in his career, it looked like the Islanders might have another John Tavares on their hands in Mathew Barzal. Sure, Barzal didn’t enter the league with the same amount of hype as Tavares, but he was a highly regarded prospect and excelled in his rookie season with 22 goals and 85 points in 82 games. He now has five full seasons under his belt though and that rookie campaign remains his best. In 2021-22, he had 15 goals and 59 points in 73 games. That’s better than most, but the Islanders were hoping for more than simply above average when he was inked to a three-year, $21 million contract. They signed him in the hopes that he could be their offensive driver and that’s exactly what they still need him to be next season. He’s entering the last season of that deal, so the 2022-23 campaign will be an important one for Barzal’s financial future on top of everything else.

Brock NelsonBrock Nelson is typically a solid top-six forward, but he stood out in 2021-22 with 37 goals and 59 points in 72 games. Can he repeat that though? His 21.6 shooting percentage was way above his career average and he’s at a high risk to regress at least a bit next season. Given how meek their offense was even with Nelson performing like that, it’s concerning. Either the Islanders will need to make additions this summer or others may have to pick up the slack.