Was 2021-22 just a hiccup for Islanders, or did their window close?
PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how surprising was that fall? Are there signs that things might go right next season? This series tackles those questions, and more. In the latest edition of “What Went Wrong?,” PHT breaks down the 2021-22 New York Islanders.
When it was abundantly clear that the 2021-22 Islanders wouldn’t make the playoffs, Barry Trotz hammered home the point that there were “no excuses.”
Yet, if the Islanders want to put a positive spin on this failed 2021-22 season, wouldn’t it be best to write off worries by blaming, say, a 13-game season-opening road trip? One person’s “excuse” is another person’s reason.
Ultimately, it’s crucial for the Islanders to assess their failed 2021-22 season properly. Was this a hiccup, or did the window close on an act with a small margin for error?
2021-22 Islanders’ larger failures (and bad luck?) hides elite season from Sorokin
If there’s one thing that snuck under the radar about the 2021-22 Islanders, it was how impressive their goaltending was.
Look at the Goals Saved Above Average ranks, and Igor Shesterkin’s historic 44.85 leads all goalies, but Ilya Sorokin was second with an outstanding 29.8. There’s a very valid argument that Ilya Sorokin (26-18-8, .925 save percentage, .712 quality start %) should finish as a 2022 Vezina Trophy finalist.
While Semyon Varlamov wasn’t as dominant, he also generated a positive GSAA (4.65).
Although stats like GSAA attempt to account for the defenses and structures in front of them, you might surmise that Barry Trotz’s schemes boost the numbers of his goalies. That’s probably true.
But it’s reasonable to wonder if the Islanders will enjoy the same elite goaltending next season after tremendous work in 2021-22. Conceivably, they could see a drop-off there while cleaning up more messes than usual on defense.
Look at a variety of defensive metrics, and you’ll note that this team wasn’t locking down opponents to the same degree. This Hockey Viz heat map captures some of the story. This wasn’t about allowing a ton of volume, but protecting the high-danger areas. Instead, the Islanders bled chances from the high-priced real estate in 2021-22:
Like others, I’d assume that Trotz & Co. will tighten some or all of these issues up next season. If not, things could stay ugly.
Islanders face key offseason questions
Heading into the offseason, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are, however, some important questions to answer.
Add to some strengths on defense and in net?
There’s a solid chance that the Islanders unearthed a real find in Sorokin, who’s merely 26, and who carries an appealing $4M cap hit through 2023-24.
They’ll need to hash out an RFA deal with rising 22-year-old defenseman Noah Dobson. Once they do that, the Islanders can find some comfort in their “trident” of Dobson and a strong pairing of 27-year-old defensemen in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock.
Beyond re-signing Dobson, the Islanders’ offseason questions begin to form around the rest of that defense. Aging blueliners Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene are UFAs, and retirement is a strong possibility for one or both. Aside from Scott Mayfield, the Islanders lack much in the way of clear depth defensemen. They’ll need to decide if prospects can fill the void; if not, trades and free agency will need to do the trick.
Cap Friendly estimates that the Islanders will have about $12.26M in cap space, with 18 roster spots covered. After a 13-goal, 51-point season, Dobson figures to eat up a healthy portion of that room.
If there’s an urge to create more space, would the Islanders try to trade Semyon Varlamov, a 34-year-old whose $5M cap hit expires after next season? (Not an outrageous question to ask if you think Barry Trotz can prop up a cheaper goalie.)
How much is left is in the tank for veteran forwards; Will they extend Barzal, and find him some help?
Offensively, it’s difficult to imagine the Islanders hanging with the rising tide of NHL scoring juggernauts.
Really, the hope is likely just that an old-but-not-ancient group doesn’t get too creaky.
- Anders Lee is 31, and his net-front style may open him up to future injuries. Josh Bailey is 32, Brock Nelson is 30, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau is 29. We’ve seen players like Brad Marchand and Chris Kreider go from good-to-great as they crossed 30. Most forwards would be glad to maintain previous levels of play, while others slip badly. Which route will these veteran Islanders forwards take?
- Lamoriello and Trotz love their old, often gritty forwards, too, from Cal Clutterbuck to Matt Martin. We’ll see if those fixations start to really hurt the Islanders.
- Can Oliver Wahlstrom (21) and Anthony Beauvillier (24) fill in some of the gaps?
All of those questions are interesting, but the most interesting forward-related question for the Islanders revolves around Mathew Barzal. In 2022-23, Barzal carries a team-friendly $7M cap hit, setting him up for restricted free agency (with arbitration rights).
Do the Islanders believe they can extend Barzal at an affordable clip? Would that be better than waiting out a contract year?
Also, can they find Barzal some help in free agency? You’d think it would be almost certain that he’d put up bigger numbers (59 points in 73 games) if he had more help. To say nothing of the daydream of Barzal in a more dynamic offensive system.
Replenish for the future, or keep selling for today?
Though debatable in terms of sheer value, those moves were understandable: the Islanders were going for it.
The full context of the Islanders’ situation presents a conundrum. Do you try to rebuild that prospect pool by making a better-than-usual draft pick, or do you explore packaging that pick to try to improve for the present?
The logic of possibly going for it extends beyond the aging elements of the Islanders’ core (not to mention 59-year-old Trotz and 79-year-old Lamoriello). It’s unclear how much Sorokin will cost after 2023-24, but the Isles have a chance to take advantage of two more seasons of an elite goalie at $4M per year. With that in mind, this may represent their last great window to contend under this current setup.
Naturally, that’s assuming that the 2021-22 season was a mere blip, and not a sign that the Islanders may no longer have the stuff to be elite defensively.
Overall, there are signs pointing both ways, including the mantra of “At this point do you really want to doubt Trotz?” Of the teams who missed the playoffs, the Islanders may face some of the most daunting long-term challenges, but they rank alongside the Golden Knights as teams most likely to rebound back to the postseason. They may even be Stanley Cup contenders again.
Or maybe their window already closed.