The New York Islanders’ one-goal shutout loss in Game 7 of the NHL Semi-Final was heartbreaking. That loss hurt more than the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 8-0 blowout in Game 5 of the same series. It was the second straight year of losing to a similar Lightning squad. Their defeat raised more questions about coach Barry Trotz and general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Lamoriello kept transactions quiet this offseason, enraging Islander fans. They demanded to know if the star players returned, and requests for a scorer were met unanswered until recently. The fabricated turmoil was vanquished, as players like Casey Cizikas and Anthony Beauvillier signed hometown discounts and showed their loyalty by rejecting outside offers. The Islanders even re-signed Kyle Palmeri, a trade deadline acquisition from last season.
The biggest signing was former Minnesota Wild winger Zach Parise. In recent years, Parise, 36, struggled with the Wild but looks to have a chip on his shoulder with his new team. Parise can make a difference on the awful Islander powerplay that ranked 20th in powerplay percentage in 2020-21.
One of the prominent issues the Islanders face is consistency when it comes to the playoffs. Over the three seasons with Trotz and Lamoriello at the helm, the Islanders defy expectations but still suffer brutal losses at the hands of other Eastern Conference teams. With Anders Lee returning from injury coupled with the additions of Parise and Zdeno Chara, the Islanders will need to play consistent hockey to clinch a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
After back-to-back Conference Final defeats, the Islanders’ hype is just starting to ramp up. I expect the Islanders to win the Metropolitan Division this season. For years, the Islanders have come close to overtaking the Metro but have come up short. The Pittsburgh Penguins will be without Sydney Crosby for the first two months, and the Washington Capitals’ core is yet another year older. The New York Rangers have entirely rebuilt their front office and still have a young team. They still can contend for the playoffs, but the Rangers’ young core needs more time in the NHL to be considered a division favorite.
The Philidelphia Flyers made some solid trades this offseason by acquiring Cam Atkinson, Rasmus Ristolinen, and Ryan Ellis. Those trades come with the caveat that the Flyers are still without a stand-alone star player. Add that goalie Carter Hart struggled mightily last season, and the Flyers should classify as a playoff hopeful, not division winner. The New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets will be in full rebuild this year and will have a meager chance at making the playoffs.
The Islanders have the best team in this division. The only weak point that remains is the scoring, which Zach Parise will hopefully solve. Other than that, the Islanders are consistent with pressuring the opposing teams forecheck and have good goaltending to back up a solid defensive unit.
Barzal is the Islanders’ best player in terms of talent alone. He seemingly took a step forward with gaudy highlight-reel goals last year, including beating out a Buffalo defender and then scoring on a breakaway that he shot through his legs. I feel that Barzal needs to establish himself to what he wants to be.
Coming off of a 45-point season, he was likely going to have a point total around 60. He did this in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. Of the 60 points that he scored, most of those were assists, so the injury to captain Anders Lee made the difference in his point totals. So is he going to be a facilitator for his whole career, or can he step up to be the next star player for the Islanders?
Barzal was once supposed to be the heir apparent to former captain John Tavares after leaving for Toronto. The Islanders’ playoff hopes relied on Tavares throughout his tenure with the team. When he went into a scoring drought late in the year, the Islanders would drastically fall in the standings. Barzal’s situation is slightly different because the team feels more like a unit without a star player. He has shown us flashes of being “the guy” that can get the Islanders to their first Stanley Cup Final since the ’80s. As he starts to enter the prime of his career, he should be striving to be that player.
Chara’s signing this offseason is a great addition to the defense. Over the past two seasons, the Islanders lost three great defenders. Devon Toews and Nick Leddy were both traded away, and Johnny Boychuk retired due to injury. Leddy’s departure this offseason left a hole that isn’t easy to fill. Prospect Samuel Bolduc, who broke out in the AHL last year, was the top candidate to win it in camp. The Chara signing, though, rounds out the list of probable starting defensemen. The lines should be Pulock-Pelech, Dobson-Mayfield, Chara-Greene. That is a good mix of lockdown-imposing defenders that shoot hard. The Islanders also have Thomas Hickey, Erik Gustaffson, and Bolduc as other options.
How Realistic is a Stanley Cup?
The Islanders have defied expectations since Trotz and Lamoriello took over. This team was supposed to be rebuilding over the past three seasons. They answered that criticism by making the playoffs all three years. Their playoff runs to the Conference Final have been endearing, but still, a lot would need to go right for them to make it to the Cup.
Parise would need to return to old form, and players from the top lines need to step up on offense. The powerplay would need to be close to the top ten to stamp approval on another deep playoff run. This team by no means has gotten worse. They need minor improvements to an already successful system.Embed from Getty Images