NY Islanders: 2 reasons to be concerned, 2 reasons to be optimistic

The Islanders will have decisions to make following the upcoming All-Star break.

New York Islanders v Colorado Avalanche
New York Islanders v Colorado Avalanche / Matthew Stockman/GettyImages
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The NY Islanders and their fans have every reason to lose confidence in the 2023-24 season. The team's recent three-game losing streak, coupled with multiple third-period meltdowns, have found themselves placed 6th in the Metropolitan Division. We have seen games that give us hope, such as defeating John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs twice at home. We have had heartbreak like losing with seven seconds left in regulation to the Nashville Predators. We have even seen this team look lifeless, such as being shut out by the Minnesota Wild. In sum, this season has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

The Islanders of the past decade have given indicators of whether the team can succeed or not by the All-Star break. Between 2019 and 2021, the team was always in the mix for winning the division, without question of clinching a playoff berth. The team was also far behind in the standings at this time in 2017 and 2022, letting fans know this is not our year. Only 2018 feels similar, where the Islanders were scoring well but failed to defend well enough in front of Jaroslav Halak. Taking all factors into consideration, why should fans feel concerned this season is over, and why should we still have optimism?

1st reason to be concerned: The lack of adjustments.

The Islanders have taken steps forward in correcting their weaknesses from last season. For instance, the team has improved its powerplay percentage from an anemic 15.8% to 23.1%, which is now better than the league average. They also have taken fewer penalty minutes per game this season at seven, compared to eight last season. In other words, the focus throughout training camp was improving their special teams unit and playing more disciplined hockey.

However, the team has taken a devastating step back in numerous areas. Through 44 games, the Isles’ penalty kill has given up 37 goals after allowing 39 all last season. This was a common theme in October and November when the team’s struggles on the PK were on the road. This problem has not only gone unaddressed but has been exacerbated. The PK has given up eight goals in the last eight games, including the game-decider against the Colorado Avalanche in overtime. To make matters worse, a mainstay on the PK unit, Casey Cizikas, has been sidelined, forcing Bo Horvat to play an unfamiliar role. For Lane Lambert and the coaching staff, this problem should have been easy to correct, considering the PK was a strength in 2022-23.

Another adjustment that has not been addressed is defensive pressure at the blue line. Butch Goring makes the point every night that the Isles are allowing easy zone entrees to the opponent without making attempts to create turnovers. This has also been noticed on the PK, where the forwards are not spreading the perimeter and just waiting to block a shot. The collateral effect of this has been less offensive-zone time and more shots on Ilya Sorokin, which results in losing hockey games. This area is a strength from the Barry Trotz era that needs to be revived.

2nd reason to be concerned: The lack of assets in Bridgeport.

The Islanders boast a veteran roster with plenty of long-term contracts. In one sense, having a similar roster for the past few seasons shows the stability Lou Lamoriello has created since taking over in 2018. On the other hand, this also represents a short window of opportunity for a team that was blueprinted starting in the Garth Snow era. In 2024, we could be witnessing the decline of many homegrown Islanders including Anders Lee and Matt Martin.

In such a case as the Islanders, having prospects at the AHL and collegiate levels would help mitigate a multi-season rebuild. This past offseason, the Boston Bruins lost many of their key players in free agency due to salary cap restrictions. Their pivot was toward the young talent they have developed from the past few drafts, and they haven’t missed a beat being the favorite to win the Atlantic Division. 

The Islanders do not have these assets currently in Bridgeport. Lamoriello has traded the past four first-round draft picks for J.G. Pageau, Kyle Palmieri, Alexander Romanov, and Horvat. While each of these players has had great moments for the Islanders, the cost has devastated the team’s future hopes of sustained success. The only prospect of note in Bridgeport who is playing well is Russian centerman Ruslan Iskhakov, who has 13 goals and 19 assists through 36 games.

1st reason for optimism: The Islanders have overcome adversity before.

As stated before, this season has been a rollercoaster ride for the Isles. Part of the downfall has occurred due to injuries to key players on defense. Pulock has not played since December 2nd with a lower-body injury, Pelech has missed 23 games due to a wrist injury, and Sebastian Aho missed eight games. The team has been forced to rely on Samuel Bolduc, a waiver claim in Mike Reilly, and a veteran backup in Robert Bortuzzo. The team has also asked Sorokin to start the last seven games in Semyon Varlamov’s absence.

The team has also responded to inadequate stretches of play before. Between November 4th and 16th, the Islanders went 0-4-3 while also blowing third-period leads four times. They responded to this by winning the next three games. On December 5th, the Islanders blew a 4-1 lead in the third period to the Sharks and lost in overtime 5-4. They responded by recording a point in eight straight games. 

Furthermore, we remember this team was out of a playoff spot at this time last season with the offense struggling. The Islanders were without Pelech and Oliver Wahlstrom last January, and then lost Barzal for the final 23 games. The big difference between that team and the current Islanders is the protection of Sorokin, both at full strength and on the PK. If the Islanders could overcome adversity in these instances, then there is no excuse for failing now, especially with Sorokin serving as an iron man.

2nd reason for optimistic: The core is still young and here to stay.

Lamoriello has signed many long-term contracts in his time as President of Hockey Operations. He has looked wise in locking up Mathew Barzal and Sorokin for the next eight years at ages 26 and 28. Lamoriello has also signed some headscratchers, most notably Pierre Engvall and Scott Mayfield to seven years this past offseason. Some seemed well deserving on the surface but have had mixed results, such as Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. In fairness, most general managers in hockey have whiffed on big contracts.

However, the Islanders' core group of players to build around is here to stay if the team decides to rebuild. Barzal and Horvat will control the top line for the next seven seasons, while Sorokin will still be competing for a Vezina Trophy. With Lamoriello’s commitment to locking up homegrown talent, fans have confidence Noah Dobson will earn his payday as well. These are great building blocks to enter and exit a rebuild with given none of them are 30 years old yet and all have reasonable cap hits for their production.

The ideal blueprint for an Isles rebuild would be to accumulate draft capital by moving players with value off the roster. While trades of fan favorites will sting the emotions in us, we can hope to have multiple first-round picks making less money surrounding these core players for years to come. Furthermore, having this talent also means the Isles can remain competitive through a minor rebuild, such as the New York Rangers between 2018 and 2021. As we witnessed with the Florida Panthers in 2023, all a team has to do is clinch the playoffs and anything can happen, regardless of age or talent level.