The NY Islanders have seen many changes throughout the 2023-24 season.
As fans, we tend to focus on the negative such as Lane Lambert being fired midseason, the penalty kill's atrocious performance, and the lack of assets coming from Bridgeport. However, on the positive end, the team has had breakout performances from some of its younger players. Noah Dobson is on pace for 87 points this season, making him a Hart Memorial Trophy contender. Mathew Barzal is getting set to represent the Isles at his third all-star game, while Simon Holmstrom is on pace for 20 goals scored in his sophomore season.
While these breakout players have helped mitigate some of the negatives, the team's biggest change from the past few seasons is their defensive performance. It's easy to point at the time missed from Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, who are among the NHL's best defensive pairing when on the ice together. We can also bring up Lambert's focus on offense from his defensemen that has sacrificed tougher forechecks and playmaking ability in front of Ilya Sorokin. This has been on full display with Alexander Romanov taking fewer hits with more shots and Scott Mayfield's recent play at the blue line.
The most glaring reason for the defensive struggles this season has been their lack of depth behind the top four defensemen. Lou Lamoriello has sought defensemen from the waiver wire in Mike Reilly and the trade market in Robert Bortuzzo. He has also leaned on the development of Samuel Bolduc to progress coming off the bench. Suffice it to say, that none of these options have worked. There was one option Lamoriello would have loved to have at his disposal in Bridgeport, however, but he did not resign this player during the offseason.
Lamoriello made a mistake letting Parker Wotherspoon go in free agency.
Out of all the free agents the Islanders retained from last season, they let one go who has developed nicely for the Boston Bruins. Selected in the 4th round of the 2015 draft from Surrey, British Columbia, Parker Wotherspoon is a 26-year-old two-way defenseman. Best known for his heavy forecheck and aggressiveness in blocking shots, Wotherspoon stuck around in Bridgeport for 6 seasons before making his NHL debut last season. In 12 games for the Islanders, Wotherspoon recorded 7 blocked shots, 8 hits, and a +5 rating on the ice. After showing great ability to fill in for injuries on defense, Wotherspoon's season ended early due to an injury at the AHL level.
After resigning a plethora of free agents in July, Wotherspoon found himself without a place on the Islanders' roster due to the roster crunch. He signed a 1 year $775K contract with the Boston Bruins on July 1st and earned an opportunity to play every night in November. Since then, Wotherspoon has recorded 40 blocked shots, 34 hits, and 3 assists in 20 games.
The Bruins have praised the young defenseman's development in their system. "I think we see a player who has the confidence that he can play well and help us a night in, night out".
The physicality that he brings, the consistency of it, is something that we need back there and he's given that to us" said head coach Jim Montgomery. Wotherspoon has been rewarded for these efforts by averaging 17:20 time on ice per game.
While the offense is not the strength of Wotherspoon, the Islanders are having trouble blocking shots and clearing the zone on penalty kills. They have also not shown the same aggressiveness in protecting the blue line and creating neutral zone turnovers we have seen in the past. Opponents are finding easy entrees past the Islanders' defense, particularly against their bottom pairings. With Wotherspoon's ability to play both sides of the puck, he would have filled in nicely for Mayfield or Pulock. The trust he has earned with the Bruins shows Lamoriello made a mistake in his evaluation of Wotherspoon in the offseason.