Entering the season, the Islanders were considered cup contenders by most. After all, a team that made the conference finals in the previous two years would be expected to be Stanley Cup favorites. However, the Isles have had a rough start to the year. From a 13 game road trip to being decimated by a COVID-19 outbreak, it is fair to say that this team is not in the place they assumed they’d be in with 26 games already played.
Now they sit at 8-12-6 (22 points) – 14th in the conference – and are 11 points back from a wildcard spot. Definitely not an insurmountable hole, but still one that will be extremely difficult to get out of, especially in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference. New York has very little room for error from here on out and they must get back on track ASAP.
November was supposed to be a month of prosperity for the Islanders. They were opening their brand new state-of-the-art facility in UBS Arena and were finally, after a 13 game road stretch, getting to hear the roar of their home fans. But the fruits of November were sour, entering the month the team was 3-2-2 and they left it sitting at 5-10-2. November 7th saw the beginning of an 11 game losing streak that wouldn’t be broken until a 5-3 victory over the Senators on December 7th.
The Islanders started out 0-5-2 in their first 7 home games and still, 31 days after the opening of UBS Arena they only have two wins on home ice. This team cannot seem to string together any sort of momentum or win streak, they are having serious issues playing a full 60 minutes and have yet to win a game that has needed extra time. They have lost all 6 games that have gone to overtime or a shootout this season. So often this year they have played well enough to win but for whatever reason, they cannot close out games and limit mistakes at the end of contests. Against San Jose, Chicago, Nashville, Detroit, and Vegas you could seriously argue that the Isles outplayed their opponents but in all of those matchups they shot themselves in the foot in one way or another, they just can’t get out of their own way.
Maybe the biggest issue with this team right now though is the production they are getting from certain veteran players. Josh Bailey, Kyle Palmieri, and Zach Parise have struggled to do much of anything offensively this season. All three of them each have only a goal apiece and have a combined 23 points in 72 total games played between the three of them. Parise though does deserve some slack as his role on the team is not to be a scorer, he’s much more of a high-energy/two-way type player. But given that he was brought in to replace Jordan Eberle who was one of the Islanders’ best offensive talents from a year ago, Parise’s production so far is leaving a lot to be desired.
Bailey and Palmieri on the other hand have no excuse for playing this poorly. They are both supposed to be pure offensive players but have struggled all year long to make any impact on that side of the ice. Despite their detrimental presence, both players have consistently gotten top 6 minutes with Bailey having the second-highest average time on ice per game out of any forward on the team. Their lackluster play is not exclusive to offense though as Bailey looks lost whenever the puck is on his stick, he is constantly turning the puck over, making ill-advised passes, and making poor neutral zone plays and the same can be said about Palmieri who is dead last on the Isles in +/- with -11. Head coach Barry Trotz has repeatedly discussed how he uses a longer leash with veteran players than he does with younger players but this year that ideology is hurting the team tremendously, especially when budding young talents like Bellows and Wahlstrom are relegated to the bottom 6 minutes because of that philosophy.
Zdeno Chara is another older player that is doing more harm than good for the Islanders this year. The longtime Bruin is a sure-fire hall of famer but his lack of skating ability now at age 44 is a major issue. He’s gotten into a lot of trouble reaching with his stick this season because of his inability to keep up with skaters and leads the team in penalty minutes with 57. Chara has a very difficult time staying with skaters and the puck at this point in his career, which gets exposed big time when he’s on the penalty kill. He also doesn’t really add anything offensively and in today’s NHL your defenseman must be able to contribute somewhat on the rush. The 24-year veteran is another guy who is a handicap for the Islanders but Trotz has defended his play on multiple occasions.
It isn’t all bad for the Islanders though. Their young stars have really played exceptional hockey in recent weeks. Ilya Sorokin has no doubt been New York’s best player this year. His .926% save percentage ranks 10th among all goaltenders and he has totaled 3 shutouts so far which is tied for 2nd most in the entire league to this point. Every night he is making acrobatic save after acrobatic save and always bails out the sometimes poor Islanders defense. Sorokin has really made up for some very bad defensive play by this team and he’s been in net for all but one of the team’s wins this season. They would absolutely be even worse than they already are if it was not for the 2nd year goalie.
Right behind Sorokin are the two 2018 first-round picks, defenseman Noah Dobson and winger Oliver Wahlstrom. Since the beginning of the month, Dobson has been the team’s best skater without a doubt. He’s the Islanders’ only offensive defenseman and he is really producing at that end of the ice with 6 points (3G, 3A) in the last 9 games. The 21-year-old defenseman has also been quarterbacking the power play extremely effectively and that unit has also improved since the beginning of the month. Defensively he’s getting better as well, playing great on both ends of the ice. Dobson is doing all the right things and is really starting to nail the details. His stick positioning is good, he is physical on defense, he creates takeaways, and then offensively, he’s joining the rush and creating scoring opportunities. To Trotz’s credit, he has rewarded the young defenseman with more ice time. In December, Dobson averages 22:22 minutes on ice, which is 4:07 more than he was averaging per game in October.
Wahlstrom is the other major bright spot right now in terms of skaters, in the 9 games this month he’s got 10 points (3G, 7A). He has really developed into a great all-around offensive weapon as he is not exclusively a shooting threat anymore, as we are seeing some serious playmaking skills from him with 6 assists in the last 5 games. Wahlstrom currently is second on the team in points, (15P: 8G, 7A) only trailing Barzal and that is with only 13:13 of ice time per game. He’s averaging the 2nd least amount of TOI per game out of any regular Islander this season, forward or defenseman. Although Wahlstrom has been slotted on the first line for the last three games, he’s only averaging 15:16 on ice in that time which is still less than the amount of time Bailey, Beauvillier, Nelson, Pageau, Lee, and Cizikas have gotten in that time. Trotz is doing a major disservice to not only Wahlstrom by not giving him more minutes to help him develop, but also to the team as the young winger is the Islanders’ second-best forward right now.
Kieffer Bellows is another guy who has made the most of his opportunities this season. In only 12 games this year he has 5 points (2G, 3A) on an average ice time of 10:39 per game. This is a young, feisty player who brings that physical edge but can also produce offensively and I think he’s a guy who deserves more playing time and a regular spot in the lineup. Robin Salo is another young player who has impressed in his limited games played this year. The 2017 2nd rounder has filled in for an injured Ryan Pulock and although he hasn’t been perfect, he definitely looks like an NHL player at this point in his career. Salo is a very good skater and brings a lot of upsides offensively, which are two things the Isles desperately need in the back end. Once Pulock comes back, I think Salo should stay in the lineup and Chara should be replaced. But Trotz doesn’t seem to believe Chara’s play has been a cause for concern this year, so we will likely see Salo sent back down to the AHL once Pulock returns.
Overall, the New York Islanders have a lot of work to do to get back into the playoff conversation. Don’t count them out though, if any team in the NHL could pull off this kind of comeback, the Islanders might be that team. Once they get completely healthy, who knows what this team may be able to put together.
Photo: Gerry Thomas/USA TODAY Sports