How the Islanders Can Turn Their Season Around

ELMONT, NY - JANUARY 15: New York Islanders Defenseman Adam Pelech (3) and Washington Capitals Center Nicklas Backstrom (19) battle for the puck during the second period of the National Hockey League game between the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders on January 15, 2022, at UBS Arena in Elmont, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With a 2-0 loss to the Washington Capitals, the New York Islanders are now 5-6-3 at home this season. Coming out of the 13-game road streak to start the season, the Isles had an upside in playing at home in a new arena. While the fans showed up, a Covid outbreak prevented the team from playing at full strength. As their playoff hopes start to dwindle, here is how the Islanders can turn their season around.

Change in Strategy

Emphesis on shooting the puck

The Islanders pass the puck a lot. Whether on the powerplay or 5-on-5, the Islanders waste offensive zone time by not shooting the puck. The thought from coach Barry Trotz is to maintain zone time instead of taking one shot and then the opposing team taking possession. However, the Islanders get too fancy with the passing, which stunts their offense.

The loss to the Capitals is an example of this. With under two minutes to go and down a goal, the Islanders pulled goalie Semyon Varlamov. Instead of pelting Washington’s Vitek Vanecek with shots, they got stuck passing at the point. The play looked like it was supposed to set up Matt Barzal to show off his skills, but he was shut down, and Noah Dobson took a shot that missed the net. After the Capitals cleared the puck, the Islanders, again, got stuck passing at the blue line. Alexander Ovechkin caused a turnover and iced the game by scoring the empty-net goal.

This is not a one-game sample from the Islanders either. Their lack of urgency on offense this year offsets the Barry Trotz style of hockey. An adverse effect of taking more shots is giving up rushes to the other team. The ice slants the opposite way, and teams with faster players could gain the edge on the Islanders’ defense. I argue they are good enough in the neutral zone defensively to take that risk, especially if it leads to more scoring.

Relience on Matt Barzal

The Islanders’ offense is one of the worst in the league. They currently rank 30th, averaging 2.23 goals per game. The Isles pride themselves as a team that works together and grind out wins with impressive play. The Islanders this year have struggled to maintain offensive pressure because their best playmaker hasn’t been as effective. Matt Barzal has been a target for opposing defenses due to his ability to effortlessly weave between defenders. His speed can open up crucial passing lanes and open up the Islanders’ offense.

Barzal was double-covered and coughed up the puck numerous times in their loss to the Capitals. With two minutes left, the Islanders pulled their goalie while down 1-0. Barzal was constantly fed the puck and felt the most pressure from the defense. The puck was poked away multiple times from Barzal, resulting in the puck leaving the offensive zone and the Islanders needing to reset.

This is not a dig on Barzal as a player. The fact that teams will isolate him via a two-on-one shows his worth to the Islanders. It’s the one-dimensional playcalling that renders the entire offense useless when Barzal is being defended. The Islanders are stacked with enough veteran players to step up and become scoring threats.

Players Need to Step Up

One of the biggest changes this season is that the Islanders didn’t have Nick Leddy in the lineup. The Islanders’ defense struggled in the Trotz system this season. In last year’s Covid-shortened season, the Islanders ranked second behind the Vegas Golden Knights in goals-allowed. This season, the Islanders rank tenth in goal-against average. Goalies Ilya Sorokin and Varlamov are posting virtually the same save statistics from last year, so the defense is the likely cause of the fall in rankings.

I think Leddy and now-retired Johnny Boychuk were leaders among the defense. Leddy and Boychuk were both alternate captains while on the Islanders. Without them, the Islanders have to rely on Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, and Scott Mayfield to take the reins as leaders. While they are terrific defensemen, they haven’t stepped up in leadership capabilities.

On the offensive side, the Islanders have been inconsistent at best. Through their 29 games, only eight players have more than ten points. Barzal leads the team with 22 points, with Oliver Wahlstrom behind him with 15. The Islanders have seven players with less than ten points, despite playing more than 25 games this season. Included in that are Zach Parise and Kyle Palmieri, both in their first full season with the team.

Besides Barzal and Wahlstrom, no Islander sticks out as an offensive threat. Brock Nelson had a five-game stretch at the end of October, where he scored eight points, including a four-goal game against Montreal. He has five total points in the 12 games following his four-goal night. Isles captain Anders Lee also only has 12 points through 24 games. Nelson and Lee are two players that need to get their names on the score sheet.

Positive Outlooks

The Isles have played only 30 games this season, tied with Ottawa for the lowest amount of games. Both teams have struggled with multiple Covid outbreaks. Having numerous games in hand can be a blessing and a curse. To the naked eye, the Islanders have no chance at contending this season, but a long-point streak can make the team relevant. With other struggling teams in the Devils, Flyers, and Kraken coming to town, the Islanders can gain some momentum by winning those games.

The Islanders hadn’t had a fully healthy team since the middle of November before they opened UBS Arena. Their lines have been scrambled due to missing players in the lineup. Even Trotz missed time due to a death in the family. Currently, Kyle Palmieri is in Covid protocols, so the lineup still has some kind of handicap. If the Islanders can stay healthy and stack a few wins together, they can work their way back into the playoff fold.

Are the Islanders out of the playoff yet? No. Climbing for last place into a playoff stop is a massive task, but the Islanders have been counted out before and made the most of it.

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