The 5 biggest surprises in the first half of the NY Islanders season

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders
Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages
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The New York Islanders reached the midway point of the 2023-24 regular season with a 19-12-10 record for 48 points in 41 games, two points ahead of their pace last season when they finished with 93 points as the top wild card in the Eastern Conference.

The season is half over, and we don’t know what type of team the Islanders are. They're a team whose identity is supposed to be rooted in defensive structure and goaltending, and yet, the only thing keeping them in the playoff picture is that they can suddenly score with anybody.

The Islanders are right around where we all thought they'd be at this point in the season, but it's been anything but a straight line as to how they got there. Injuries and blown leads have been accompanied by tremendous individual seasons and some thrilling come-from-behind wins.

The second half of the season is sure to have its own ups and downs, twists and turns, and finishes that are both exhilarating and excruciating. We expect it, but that won't make fans any less emotional and passionate when it happens.

And with that, here's a list of our 5 biggest surprises in the first half of the Islanders season.

Special Teams

Everything we assumed about the Islanders' special teams this season has been wrong. The power play would be better because how could it not be? But no one expected it to be this dangerous and efficient.

The Islanders currently have the 8th best power-play in the league (25%) after finishing 30th (15.8%) last season. To put things even further in perspective, the team has already scored 28 power-play goals this season after scoring only 35 last year, which was tied for the fewest in the league.

A full season of Bo Horvat occupying the bumper position on the power-play has made a world of difference. The team is moving the puck faster and more decisively, while Noah Dobson has become one of the better power-play quarterbacks in the league. That, along with Mathew Barzal's ability to gain the offensive zone and create space, has made their power play a force this season.

Anaheim Ducks v New York Islanders
Anaheim Ducks v New York Islanders / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

Meanwhile, the penalty kill has struggled since the beginning of the season and hasn't yet fully recovered. You may recall the team allowing four power-play goals to the New Jersey Devils at home back in October. It was viewed as an anomaly, but it would serve more as an indicator of what was to come. The Isles have already allowed 33 power-play goals this season after surrendering 39 all of last year. They were particularly strong at home, allowing just 11 goals; that number is already 14.

Outside of a few stretches, it has been their most consistent weakness. While defenseman Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, and Ryan Pulock have all missed significant time this season, it's hard to pin the poor results on that. They've struggled to kill penalties regardless of who has been out there.

However, one thing that has offset the penalty kill woes is the team's ability to score short-handed. Simon Holmstrom has been a revelation and has scored a remarkable five SHG this season, and the team has eight overall, which is the fifth most in the league.

If the Isles are able to maintain their power play prowess while turning around their penalty kill, they'll put themselves in a strong position to claim a playoff spot.

Lane Lambert wasn't fired

There was a point where it felt second-year head coach Lane Lambert was firmly on the hot seat or at least should have been. The Isles were blowing third-period leads regularly and went winless for seven straight games in November.

After losing four straight (0-1-3), the team embarked on a four-game western Canada road trip and there was some thought that Lambert wouldn't be the coach upon their return. They lost the first game to Edmonton and then blew leads to Seattle and Vancouver, losing both games in overtime.

Nov 16, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert during the second
Nov 16, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert during the second / Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The final game on the trip was in Calgary, and the Isles once again couldn't hold onto a third-period lead. However, this time they survived overtime and won the game in a shootout on an Oliver Wahlstrom goal. Would GM Lou Lamoriello have made a chance if they had lost? We'll never know.

Things stabilized a bit from there, but the Islanders were still unable to hold onto leads late in games. On Nov. 28, they led the Devils 4-2 but lost 5-4 in regulation, surrendering three goals in the third period including the game winner with 23 seconds left to play. The team rebounded to win the next two games, though they blew another lead in Carolina, but then came the low point of the season against San Jose. The Islanders led the lowly Sharks 4-1 in the third period, allowed three consecutive goals, and lost in overtime.

Following that unacceptable loss, a portion of the fanbase was ready to move. They'd have enough of the blown leads and lost points. Lamoriello stuck with his hand-picked Trotz successor, and the results continue to be mixed, though, given the injuries to the back end, Lambert and his staff deserve credit for keeping the group together and showing resolve as they did Thursday vs. Toronto.

Ilya Sorokin has a GAA over 3.00

If there was one given heading into the season, it was Ilya Sorokin.

The Isles were going to be a team with limited offensive firepower and a less structured defense than in prior years, but they had a Vezina Trophy favorite, a franchise goaltender who is locked up for the next eight seasons, giving them a distinct advantage and making up for deficiencies elsewhere.

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders
Washington Capitals v New York Islanders / Rich Graessle/GettyImages

It's been a tricky season to evaluate Sorokin. The Islanders are allowing the second-highest shot total per game in the league (35.2), and no goaltender has seen more rubber this season than Sorokin. Still, the eye test for those who watch each and every game tells you he hasn't been playing at the same level he did last season.

That doesn't mean he hasn't been very good. He's been the reason why they have been able to earn points many nights, but Sorokin is supposed to be better than very good. He's expected to be an elite goaltender, and despite the leaky defense in front of him, he hasn't been that this season yet.

Appearing in 29 games, Sorokin has a 3.19 GAA compared to his career mark of 2.49. His save percentage is .909 compared to .921 for his career as well. According to MoneyPuck, Sorokin's GAA above expected is 0.11, down from 0.65 last season. The fact that he isn't and likely won't be part of the Vezina Trophy conversation is one of the bigger surprises this season.

Oliver Wahlstrom has been a non-factor

It's starting to feel as if it just isn't going to happen for Oliver Wahlstrom on Long Island. Coming back from a season-ending knee injury, there was optimism heading into the season as Wahlstrom spoke about how the injury was a "blessing" that allowed him to take a step back, watch the game from afar, and improve his mindset moving forward.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders
Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

However, the Islanders forward group is deep this season, and the internal competition for playing time has been there since the start of training camp. Simon Holmstrom solidified his role in the lineup, Hudson Fasching played well in the absence of Matt Martin, and Julien Gauthier has been showing off his combination of size and speed. All have had their moments, and outside of a few select games, each is ahead of Wahsltrom on the depth chart right now.

In 20 games, Wahlstrom has just two goals and three assists, averaging 11:18 TOI when he plays. A couple of years ago, he appeared to have a chance to be a top-line sniper. Now he's just trying to earn consistent opportunities to show he can be a middle-six contributor at the NHL level.

Noah Dobson has been elite

Noah Dobson has been the team's most valuable player.

Heading into last season, fans were looking for Dobson's game to mature and round itself out to the next level, and much of that was focused on his play in the defensive zone. That's where meaningful steps were needed, as he had put together back-to-back seasons showing he could be a 50 or even potentially 60-point scoring defenseman.

What's happened is that Dobson has exceeded expectations on both sides of the ice and by a wide margin. He's excelled as the quarterback of the power play, and after his four-point night on Thursday has six goals and 36 assists on the season and is on pace to become the first Islanders defenseman since Denis Potvin to average at least one point per game in a season

Dec 23, 2023; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; New York Islanders defenseman Noah Dobson (8) checks
Dec 23, 2023; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; New York Islanders defenseman Noah Dobson (8) checks / James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

With injuries to Pelech, Pulock, and Mayfield depleting the blue line, Dobson had to step up his defensive game, play in more situations, and even contribute regularly to the penalty kill. The result is that he is now averaging 25:51 TOI per game, second highest in the league, and had a streak of 21 consecutive games of playing 25 minutes or more.

He may not end up an All-Star this season, but he's in the Norris Trophy conversation and setting himself up for a massive payday as he heads into the final season of his three-year bridge contract next season. The Isles wouldn't be close to where they are without his development accelerating as much as it has this season, making him a top-pair defenseman and an elite offensive one.