The 2022 NHL All-Star Weekend is over and, starting today, the second half of the season begins. Along with it comes playoff pushes, roster moves, newfound morale, etc. Before moving on, however, it’s good to look back–in this case, we are looking at the New York Islanders.
Going into this season, many people had predicted that the Islanders would go far once again. They played well last season, making it to the Stanley Cup Semifinals and losing in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Some people, including myself, thought they could’ve beaten the Montréal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final.
At this point in the season, however, the Islanders look rather different.
They sit in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division with a 16-17-6 record and 38 points. Despite being just three points behind Columbus, they are 17 points behind the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. While they do have a beautiful new stadium in UBS Arena, they have suffered numerous injuries, postponements and offensive droughts. All of these factors have contributed to a lackluster team that is a shell of what it was last year. What has gone wrong? What has gone right? What’s going to happen from here on out? Let’s take a look and see.
Home Sweet Home?
After years of questions, worrying and fretting, the Islanders finally got a permanent home in UBS Arena. The only downside to this was having to play the first 13 games of their season on the road. They survived with a respectable 5-6-1 record before going to their impenetrable new home–well, sort-of.
UBS Arena has not been the fortress that many fans thought it was going to be. In 22 games there, the Islanders have a 9-10-3 record. Compare this to the Caroline Hurricanes who, with just one less game, have a 16-4-1 record at home. Islanders fans have shown up to support their team; attendance is not a problem. Instead, the Islanders have just not found their rhythm yet. They have seen multiple games postponed this season, most of which stemmed from COVID-19 related issues. In fact, at the halfway mark, they have played the least amount of games with 39. With most of their schedule still ahead of them and lots of more home games, the Islanders still have time to turn UBS Arena into a place to be reckoned with–even if the parking leaves a lot to be desired.
Defensive Strengths but Offensive Woes
The Islanders are not known for being a high goalscoring team; they are called “pesky” for a reason. In fact, since Barry Trotz took over as head coach in the 2018-2019 season, the Islanders have ranked near the bottom of the league in goals scored. In this season alone, so far, they sit in last place with just 92 goals. They have performed worse offensively than the two worst teams in the NHL: the Arizona Coyotes and the Montréal Canadiens. Brock Nelson leads the team in goals with a measly 14. Only two other teams in the NHL have a leading goalscorer with 14 goals or less. From there, only three other players have double-digit goal totals: Anders Lee (11), Mat Barzal and Oliver Wahlstrom (10 each).
So how come the Isles aren’t in dead last? That’s where the defense comes in. It has been picking up the slack of the offense, leading to a -12 goal differential so far. They have allowed 105 goals, third-best in the league behind the Flames (104) and the Hurricanes (98). Interestingly, the Isles are the only team in the top 10 of goals allowed that has a negative goal differential. This imbalance has caused problems, preventing the team from playing consistently well.
Inconsistency has come in other forms for the Islanders, who’ve had to deal with numerous lineup changes and game postponements. Head Coach Barry Trotz has had no choice but to tinker with his preferred lineups many times.
The changes have stemmed from both injuries and COVID-19 cases alike. Brock Nelson, the Isles’ lead scorer, has dealt with both; on November 22nd against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he suffered a lower-body injury that sent him to the IR. He missed seven games before coming back on December 11th. Then, just four games later, he was placed in COVID-19 protocols and missed two more games. Luckily, he has played consistently since then. In his last five games, he has a goal and four assists. Ryan Pulock and Kyle Palmieri have also both had stints on the IR.
It didn’t help that the Isles were hit with a wave from the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Along with Nelson going into COVID-19 protocols were six other players, including Oliver Wahlstrom, Anthony Beauvillier and Cal Clutterbuck. On top of that, new COVID-19 restrictions from Canada meant that more games had to be postponed. Therefore, from late December to mid-January, the Islanders played a total of just two games over the span of 24 days. In any sport, consistency and momentum are key. A lack of either of those can lead to struggles and disappointment–hence why the Islanders are where they are. As the current COVID-19 wave seems to wane, here’s hoping that the Islanders can build a solid stretch during this second half.
Despite the imbalance between the offense and defense and the Islanders’ woes, there have been some bright spots on this team. First off is Mat Barzal, who is providing much of whatever offense is there. He is the only player with double-digit points and assists, with 10 and 18 respectively. If he keeps this current pace, he should be able to surpass last year’s totals of 17 goals and 28 assists.
On the defensive side, Adam Pelech has had a great season so far. While he only has two goals, he has backed that up with 10 assists and a +/- of 11–the highest on the team. As a testament to his work, not only has the Isles’ defense been great but he was also invited to the NHL All-Star Game. There, he participated in the Hardest Shot Challenge and helped the Metro Divison come out on top over the Central and Pacific Divisions.
Finally, there is Ilya Sorokin who, in his first season as the Islanders’ primary goaltender, has done a solid job so far. He has a 13-8-0 record so far with a .924 save percentage and four shutouts–tied for second-best in the NHL. While his offense hasn’t helped him out that much (hence the eight losses), he has been one of the few standouts on the team at the midseason mark.
Looking Ahead for the Islanders
Even though a playoff spot isn’t completely out of the question just yet, the Islanders need to get to work–and quickly. They have plenty of games in hand over their opponents, giving them a chance to move up the standings. It won’t be easy, however, as the team has a lot to improve on.
February will be a difficult month to finish off, with just two home games and eight away games. They’ll have to find a way to take care of business on the road before having a more home-friendly schedule in March. When those games come along, they’ll have to turn UBS Arena into the impenetrable fortress Isles fan had been anticipating. Additionally, with COVID-19 cases going down once again, there should be more consistency in this half of the season.
Most importantly, however, the Islanders will need to improve on their style of play. They can’t expect to be at the bottom of the league in scoring and still make the playoffs. Guys like Anthony Beauvillier, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Josh Bailey need to pick it up and start scoring goals. The Isles’ can’t solely rely on a couple of players to score goals–the best teams have myriad goalscorers that share the responsibility of producing good offense.
Do I think the Islanders can make the playoffs? I don’t think so. While they do have a solid team on paper, I just don’t see them overcoming the odds. Plus, with such a large gap and so many good teams in front of them, it will be even more difficult. Who knows, though? Anything can happen in hockey.