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.
Today, we look at defenseman Noah Dobson.
Dobson has been and remains an "x-factor" for this team heading into the season, possessing more potential that has yet to be realized. After a breakout 2021-22 season, expectations amongst a segment of the fanbase was that the 2018 1st-round pick would start to assert himself as a top-pair defenseman across the league.
It didn't quite work out that way. Dobson's final offensive numbers (13G, 36A) in 78 games weren't far off from his 51-point performance (13G, 38A) the previous season. However, he was less consistent and, more alarmingly, didn't improve in his own zone, leading to concerns that he won't develop that side of his game to be trusted in all situations by head coach Lane Lambert, who memorably called him out during a practice in February.
"Too much criticism has been of Dobson," GM Lou Lamoriello said at his June press conference. "Look at his point production, very similar to last year, and I think we put a lot of high expectations on him. People look at him; give him more attention."
While Lamoriello may be right that Dobson has faced too much criticism due to high expectations, there's no question that his physicality and situational awareness still need to improve in his own zone. Yet, it's another part of his game, one on the offensive side, that could be the team's biggest x-factor next season if the 23-year-old figures it out.
Dobson needs to become a better quarterback on the power play. The Isles didn't go out and bring in another "offensive" defenseman, meaning that Dobson and Sebastian Aho will likely be expected to remain in that role when the team has the man advantage. The Islanders finished with 93 points last season with the 30th-ranked power-play in the league. If the Prince Edward Island native can be part of the solution there, it can vault the Islanders toward being a 100-point team and defenseman near the rare 60-point mark for an Islanders' defenseman.
He doesn't need to become Roman Josi, Cale Makar, or Adam Fox on the power play this season, but he has to be trending in that direction, even if he never reaches those heights. Dobson needs to move the puck quicker and more decisively; a problem last season as the unit too often looked stagnant and didn't force defenders to move position. Dobson doesn't need to be counted on to always deliver a one-timer but needs to find ways to get the puck to the front of the net consistently for players like Anders Lee and Bo Horvat to do their thing.
If Dobson can modestly improve in his own end and as the PP quarterback, the impact on the team will be significant and could be one of the main factors in ensuring the Islanders return to the playoffs during the 2023-24 season.