Who is the "X-Factor" for the New York Islanders heading into the 2023-24 season?
Well, the answer depends on how you are using the term. An "X-Factor" is often used to describe a special talent or quality that separates some players from others. If we're using that definition, the superior athleticism of Ilya Sorokin or Matthew Barzal's skating are X-factors, skills that make them among the team's best and most valuable players. However, the other definition is that of "a variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome."
If we're using the second definition, there are a handful of players that, if their season breaks a certain way, could have a significant impact on the outcome of the Islanders' success and help them go from a fringe playoff team to a team viewed as a Stanley Cup contender.
One of them is Bo Horvat.
The Islanders aren't paying him $8.5M AAV over the next eight seasons to be an "X-Factor," he should be a known quantity at this point of his career. He earned that extension that GM Lou Lamoriello dubbed "too long and too expensive" based on what he has already accomplished in the league as much about what he would do on Long Island. However, Islanders fans don't feel that they saw Horvat at the peak of his abilities following his acquisition at the All-Star Break.
Horvat scored just seven goals and nine assists for the Islanders in 30 games after his trade from the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 30th. Prior to that, he was among the league leaders in goals scored with 31 in 49 games. That 0.63 goals-per-game pace was the best of Horvat's career, and even if he was, as many predicted, due for a regression, the 0.23 goals-per-game pace he had with the Islanders was his lowest since he was a 20-year-old during the 2015-16 season. That's a 15-goal pace. He has to be better than that, and not just a little better than that next season.
While his offensive slump dragged on following Barzal's injury, Horvat proved how he can still help a team in other ways as the team played some of their best hockey of the season down the stretch to make the playoffs. Although he wasn't scoring, Horvat's prowess in the face-off circle, plus his ability to contribute on the penalty kill when JG Pageau was out of the lineup, showed the fanbase they were getting more than a goal-scorer.
That was great and Horvat got credit for it at the time, but he needs to score goals, he needs to score power-play goals and he and Barzal need to give the Islanders the type of every night first line that the opposition has to game plan against. If that doesn't happen, it's hard to see how the team takes a step forward next season and hard to imagine fans not starting to grumble about his contract.
Over his final years in Vancouver, Horvat worked hard to improve his play-making ability. Taking advice from NHL Hall-of-Famer Adam Oates as his private skills coach, he added more curve to his stick, and he learned how to protect the puck better. These small changes collectively made a big difference in his production.
Horvat's trajectory needs to be that of Brock Nelson, a player who continues to add to his game and get back as he approaches 30 years old. He's demonstrated a work ethic that strives to get better. If that continues, and some of his best hockey is still ahead of him, he will turn into that known quantity the Islanders need him to be, not a questioned variable.
Horvat may be an X-Factor right now, but he needs to become a known quantity and asset during the 2023-24 season.