Coming into the season there was some serious buzz around the New York Islanders as Stanley Cup contenders. That's what happens after back-to-back seasons of reaching the Conference Finals will do.
We know that didn't happen and we can all generally agree on the reasons why. There's been a ton of digital ink spilled on what went wrong last season; from COVID, the road trip, to roster construction.
Going forward, we know the goal for the Islanders is to get back into contention. To be considered cup contenders again. So what will it take to get there? We all have our own opinions as Islanders fans, but what is the opinion of those that don't see the world with blue and orange glasses?
New York Islanders road to contender is seemingly long
The Athletics Shayna Goldman and Saad Yousuf looked at what's missing from all sixteen of the teams that didn't make the playoffs this year. They have an established "checklist" for a team to win the Cup, so they applied that checklist to the 16 no-playoff teams.
You can see the Stanley Cup checklist here (subscription required).
There are 12 (sometimes overlapping) criteria for teams to effectively hit on in this checklist. Hitting all, or as many of them will effectively put teams closer to a cup than not. At least on paper. Remember, this is all simply on paper, and as we know hockey isn't played on paper so this isn't perfect but it's a good place to start the discussion.
This year the Isles met five of the criteria and are projected to hit seven of the 12. So they're not in awful shape going forward. Here are the seven criteria they did meet:
Elite Defenseman: Ryan Pulock
Elite Goalie: Ilya Sorokin
Top-Line Center: Brock Nelson
No.1 D-man: Noah Dobson
Top-6 Forward: Kyle Palmieri
Top Pair Defenseman: Noah Dobson
Top Pair Defenseman: Scott Mayfield
Again, you can see some overlap here. Dobson is listed as the number one D and the top pair guy. But he's not listed as the elite D (he should be)? But even moving Dobson around doesn't fill up any of the other gaps on the team and that's what matters. How many gaps do the Isles have to fill in just a few months?
Well, at least five right? They've got seven of the 12 covered.
They don't have an elite center or winger. They don't have a top-line winger, a second top-6 winger, or a second top-pair defenseman. At least according to this review.
Missing Top Pair Defense?
I'd argue defensively the Islanders are fine for the purpose of this checklist. I'm not sure how Adam Pelech isn't on this list. He was elite when looking at his actual and projected 1.9GSVA. A duo of Pelech-Dobson is a bonafide top pair defensive pair in the NHL.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Isles are actually fine defensively. They still need a top-four defenseman. Not having one doesn't seem to matter for this checklist but I'd counter (and I'm sure you would too) that not having a fourth top-four d-man was a huge reason for the Isles issues this year.
The Isles issues up top are visible for everyone to see here. The team fails at just about every winger criteria. That's really tough to see considering the Isles offensive strength is supposed to be their overwhelming number of middle-six guys.
The Islanders clearly need a top-line guy. Of course, you already knew that. But even if they get a top-line guy it's clear they still need some of their other wingers to step up. Ideally, getting that top-line winger has a sort of domino effect by pushing a few other wingers down the roster and into spots that are more aligned with their skill sets. Spots where they should flourish.
Road not so long
So is the Isles road to contention long? It really isn't that long. They've got some work to do of course but I think they could take a big step forward if they address their defensive issue.
I know we want more goals on this team, but I think with a little lineup tinkering the Isles could generate more offense than we're used to.
Barzal paired with Beauvillier?
Oliver Wahlstrom with the defensive leash loosened?
Bailey pushed down to line three and off the PP and not the first guy over the boards on a 6on5?
Those are just a few suggestions.
But as it stands right now there's a massive gap on the blue line that can't be filled internally. Say what you will about Robin Salo's potential but he isn't there just yet. Assuming everything else stays the same (lines, deployment, ice times) if the Isles can bring in a sure-fire top-four left-handed defenseman they'll fix a number of issues.
That doesn't mean I don't think the Isles should also target someone like Kevin Fiala. But if they can't him, or a player like him, getting a top-four defender could be enough to get them back to contender status.