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Islanders 2021 Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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First faceoff at UBS Arena
First faceoff at UBS Arena / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages
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It's almost 2022, and a lot has happened this year. With all of the chaos, it can be helpful to reflect on the year that was - what went well, and what didn't go so well. I'll be looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Islanders' season to date (only including the 2021-22 season, since there's already been plenty written about the previous season). And believe it or not, even in what's been a pretty disappointing season so far, there's still a lot of good.

Good: UBS Arena

We begin this 2021 recap with the best thing to happen to the Islanders' fanbase since the Dynasty. After the Kansas City rumors, the absolute fiasco of the Barclays Center, and - for many young fans - a literal lifetime of uncertainty, the New York Islanders have a home. And not just any home - UBS Arena, designed for the fans, might be the best sports arena in North America. We're finally home.

Bad: Nassau Coliseum

While I am incredibly happy and excited that UBS is finally done, it is a little sad to be saying goodbye to the Barn. It's not being destroyed or anything - it is now the home of the National Lacrosse League's New York Riptide, and also hosts plenty of concerts - but it won't be hosting any more Islanders games. At least we gave it a good sendoff.

Ugly: COVID-19

This isn't an Isles-specific problem - the whole league has had COVID problems to some extent - but the Islanders' COVID situation has been... really, really bad. As Andrew Gross pointed out, almost the entire team has tested positive at some point:

Plus, the Isles were forced to play several games during their outbreak, which - aside from causing them to lose some games due to their very depleted roster - possibly contributed to the outbreaks on other teams. None of this is the Islanders' fault, but the way this situation, and the way the league handled it, have been ugly.

Good: Lou Lamoriello

You may not agree with every decision Lou made this year, and trust me, I have plenty of criticism for him too. But overall, he's done quite well. Moving Andrew Ladd allowed him to re-sign every important free agent (and didn't even cost a 1st rounder!). He's locked up the elite defensive pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock for the foreseeable future at a very reasonable price (less than $12 million combined!!) And he's structured the team to have plenty of cap space next year.

Bad: Lou Lamoriello

As well as I think Lou has done, he's certainly not perfect. Right now, it seems like the Kyle Palmieri signing was probably a mistake, although I certainly expect him to improve (more on that later). I would argue that losing Jordan Eberle in the expansion draft was close to unavoidable, but it does sting a little to see him having so much success on a pretty bad Seattle team. And I don't think Lou handled the Anatolii Golyshev situation very well.

Ugly: Zdeno Chara

Yikes. We were all very excited for the story - Chara is returning home! We're righting the wrongs of the Milbury years! But it turns out Chara is... not very good anymore. Don't get me wrong, he's had a fantastic career, but by now, he's just not good. Anyone watching the games can see that he's very, very slow, frequently out of position, and that once-deadly slap shot isn't too scary anymore. Stats back up the eye test - Chara has 2 points in 23 games and has an even-strength Corsi For % of 42.9%, which is the third-worst of all regular Isles players.

Good: Oliver Wahlstrom

Oliver Wahlstrom was benched early this season, and since then, he's been arguably the best forward on the team. He has 15 points, including 8 goals, in 26 games. He's quickly become the scariest part of a power play which was truly awful at the beginning of the year but has actually been fairly good for the past month or so. His CF% is 55.2%, which leads the team (among players with at least 100 minutes played), and his even-strentgh CF% is 49.0%, third among regular forwards. Those Corsi numbers say that he's an offensive threat and not a defensive liability, which is exactly what I see when I watch him. It sure looks like he'll be a very good player for a long time.

Bad: Josh Bailey

Bailey has 10 points in 21 games, which is pretty good - that's just about a 40-point pace. The bad part: only one of those 10 points is a goal. That's just about a 4-goal pace, which is... not great. Bailey also has the second-worst even-strength CF% on the team (as always, among players with 100+ minutes), despite 66.3% of his zone starts coming in the offensive zone (the only player with a worse CF%, Casey Cizikas, has only 21.7% of his starts coming in the offensive zone).

Slight note (skip this if you don't care about advanced stats): those zone start percentages refer only to offensive vs defensive zone draws. This stat ignores neutral zone draws and on-the-fly changes, since they are not inherently more or less likely to end up in the offensive zone. So when I say that 66.3% of Bailey's zone starts are in the offensive zone, that doesn't actually mean he begins 66.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone; it just means that he's about twice as likely to begin in the offensive zone than in the defensive zone. This is a small and mostly unimportant nuance, but I always like to be exact when possible.

Ugly: Kyle Palmieri

I don't know what's up with Palmieri this year. The most annoying part, for me, is that he's not even playing badly. His even-strength CF% of 49.55% is the second-best on the entire team, and his all-situations CF% of 52.79% is 4th on the team. And yet, he has one goal. His shooting percentage is 1.8%, which is very, very bad. In a sense, that's encouraging - it suggests that Palmieri is getting unlucky (his career shooting percentage is 12.1%, and there's no obvious reason for it to decrease so dramatically, aside from luck), which means he's poised for a bounceback in 2022. But, despite all the indications that he's not actually a bad player, just unlucky, I can't possibly justify not calling Palmieri's season so far ugly.

Good: Brock Nelson

I'm writing this article on Brocktober 91st (which some people might call December 30th). As of today, Brock Nelson has only played 19 out of 26 games, but he leads the team in goals with 10. He won't actually reach 40 goals due to the time missed, but he is technically on pace to score 40 goals in a full 82-game season. In a sense, Nelson is the anti-Palmieri - his shooting percentage is 21.7%, well over his career average of 13.5%, which suggests he'll probably regress a bit next year, but still, it's hard not to be impressed with his play so far.

Bad: Scott Mayfield

With the injury to Ryan Pulock, Mayfield has been asked to step up into a top-pair role. To put it bluntly, he's just not good enough for that. He occasionally shows flashes of defensive brilliance, but at this point, those flashes aren't coming frequently enough. Everybody makes mistakes, but Mayfield seems to make a lot of mistakes, from defensive lapses to dumb penalties. On the bright side, he does have one goal, which means he's scored 50% of all goals by Islanders defensemen not named Noah Dobson. (Seriously, aside from Dobson, Isles defensemen have only scored 2 goals this season.)

Ugly: Zach Parise

Go back and read what I wrote about Kyle Palmieri. All of it applies to Parise too. One single goal, unsustainably low shooting percentage (2.4% when his career average is 11.4%, and good Corsi numbers (8th on the team in all situations, and 7th at even strength). It's slightly less important, though, since Palmieri was brought in to score goals, while Parise's role was always intended to be more defensive. And while I have been very happy with Parise's style - he reminds me a lot of a winger version of JG Pageau (although he's had to play some center with Nelson's injury, especially when Cizikas or Barzal were in COVID protocol), and he's good at killing penalties - I'm sure he's just as frustrated as the fans are with his lack of production.

Good: Aatu Räty

Drafting Aatu Räty might be the best thing Lou Lamoriello has done all year. Initially projected to be a top 5 pick, Räty fell all the way to the second round after a disappointing 2020-21 season. After a strong showing in the NHL preseason, he began the year with Karpat in the Finnish top league Liiga, scoring one point in 6 games, and was a frequent scratch. But since he was traded (technically loaned, but there's really no difference in this case) to a different Liiga team, Jukurit, he has 14 points in 14 games, including 6 goals. He was named to Finland's World Junior Championship roster, but was unfortunately not able to participate due to a COVID outbreak on Jukurit (then, of course, the whole tournament was canceled). He's expected to be in North America to start next season, either on Bridgeport or the NHL team. Of course, anything can happen, and European prospects aren't always able to translate their game to the North American ice... but I'm definitely excited to see Räty on the Island next year.

Good: William Dufour

I'm breaking the pattern here because, honestly, I don't want to write any more about the bad and ugly of this season. Instead, let's focus on William Dufour. The Isles' 5th round pick in 2020, Dufour is having an unbelievable year with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. He currently leads his team with 47 points in 28 games, tied for the second-most in the entire QMJHL. He was one of the final cuts from Canada's World Junior Championship roster. I would expect the Isles' coaching staff to give him a real chance at next season's training camp. Nobody expects 5th rounders to make the NHL, so the fact that we're even talking about Dufour like this is a huge bonus.

Good: Draft Picks

Every cloud has a sliver lining. Right now, the Isles' season has not gone as intended. They are currently 6th-worst in the league by points percentage, and 4th-worst by points. A playoff appearance is still possible, particularly if everyone gets healthy and Palmieri and Parise start scoring, but it's pretty unlikely. The silver lining: they have their 1st round pick this year! In recent years, the Isles have traded their 1st rounder near the deadline, but if they're still way outside the playoffs, they won't do that. Which means, assuming they miss the playoffs, the Isles will get a top 16 pick, with a pretty good chance of being top 10 and an outside chance of being top 5. They've only had three top 16 picks since 2015 - which turned into Mat Barzal (16th overall in 2015), Oliver Wahlstrom (11th in 2018), and Noah Dobson (12th in 2018). It'd be a shame to miss the playoffs, but it would certainly come with a pretty significant bonus.

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