3 huge X-Factors that will make or break the rest of the Islanders season

The Islanders are still in the playoff hunt, and to maximize their chances, they must improve three major areas of their game.

Feb 18, 2024; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30)
Feb 18, 2024; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30) / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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The Islanders just can’t seem to get any consistency going during the most crucial part of the season, but as of Tuesday afternoon, they sit just six points out of the wild card. And with just under two months of regular season hockey left, the Isles can still get on a roll and catapult their way into at least a lower seed. 

However, they need to fix a few drawbacks to their game, and such issues have plagued New York all season. They have been inconsistent on both sides of the ice, and while their overall power play has been a strong suit, their penalty kill is another story. 

Fixing these issues would make the Islanders quest for the postseason a lot easier, so let’s take a deep dive into the numbers, see where they are lacking, and what they must do to improve their game. 

The Islanders offense at 5-on-5 needs to convert better

When you look at the Islanders overall 5-on-5 analytics, you will see a discrepancy between what they are expected to be doing at 5-on-5 vs. what they are actually converting. For example, their expected goals for sits at 116.0 this season, which rests roughly 4.5 above the league average. But when you look at their actual goals for, it’s currently a measly 103, seven under the average and 13 under the expected. 

The same goes for overall scoring chances, as on the surface, their 1,268 chances for is better than the average. However, their scoring chances for percentage is just 47.2 percent, meaning they are giving up way more chances than they are giving themselves, but more on that later. 

You can also see this reflected in their 487 high-danger chances for, which sits well above the NHL’s average. But they converted just 41 this season, or 7.8 percent, three goals and 1.4 percent under the rest of the league. 

Defensive zone play is another major area of improvement

Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov haven’t looked good from an overall GAA standpoint, which collectively sits at roughly 3.00. But it’s a rather bad stat to judge them by, given the poor play defensively. This isn’t to say the duo, especially Sorokin, shouldn’t step up their respective games and come up big amidst the team’s defensive struggles, but it would be easier on everyone if the Isles played better in the defensive zone. 

So far in 2023-24, Sorokin and Varlamov faced 34.6 shots on goal per game, and it’s an inexcusable number for what should be a playoff-caliber team like the Islanders. Adding a forward who can play defense like Adam Henrique would serve this team well if the Isles can afford to bring him in, but right now, it’s tough to see the current group giving much value. 

The 5-on-5 numbers can be deceptive here, given New York’s 0.929 save percentage and 104 actual goals allowed vs. 123.9 expected goals against. They have given up a resounding 518 high-danger scoring chances, but just 40 goals off of those chances. That said, it’s not the goaltending, even if Sorokin needs to show some heroics, but the defensive play is the real culprit. 

Time for the penalty kill to match the power play’s success

The Islanders may not be a high-scoring unit in 2023-24, but their power play has so far been a success, ranking seventh in the NHL with a 23.81 conversion rate. This outstanding number could be a major difference-maker if it wasn’t for New York’s sketchy play in the defensive zone and their struggles on the penalty kill. 

While the Isles have been one of the NHL’s best teams in scoring shorthanded goals with nine, that’s about as good as it’s gotten for their PK unit. With a PK success rate of just 70.73, New York’s unit is still 32nd in the league, and the next remotely playoff-caliber team on the list is the Nashville Predators, who rank 27th with a 75.43 rate. 

Someone like Henrique would provide some relief at 4-on-5, but one player also won’t make an incredible difference. Besides bringing in a valuable trade piece, the entire unit must collectively get better and it needs to happen quickly if the Isles want to stick around the playoff race in any capacity. If that doesn’t happen, and if by extension their play doesn’t improve defensively at 5-on-5, it will be tough to sneak into the playoffs this season. 


(Statistics provided by Hockey-Reference as of February 20th)