Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 New York Islanders.
2021-22 New York Islanders
The Islanders had another semi-successful season. It’s only ‘semi’ because they didn’t get to the main goal, the Stanley Cup. However, for the second consecutive season, the Long Island team got to the Conference Finals. This year, forcing a Game 7 against the champions, Tampa Bay Lightning. For the new season, they’re hungry to finally take the shiny silver trophy home. But that doesn’t mean this past season is not worth revisiting.
The last season was a rollercoaster for Isles fans. Semyon Varlamov started amazingly. The goalie was a brick wall in most of the games he started. Varlamov helped the Islanders get an 18-6-4 record in the first half of the season, playing in 20 of the first 28 games. The Russian had a 19-11-4 record in 36 games played throughout the season, with a .929 save percentage and a 2.04 goals-against average. For most of the games, he was the solid goaltender the Islanders know they have. And when they needed him to be at his best, he was almost perfect.
However, the season was not smooth for them. On March 11, their captain Anders Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury and missed half of the season and their playoff run. The captain was missed and is a really important part of their system. Without him, their head coach Barry Trotz didn’t have many options until the trade deadline moves. Lee ended up being replaced by Leo Komarov, as Mathew Barzal‘s winger for much longer than the fans wanted him to. In the end, it wasn’t as catastrophic as it looked it would be at the beginning. However, Lee’s impact was missed in the playoffs.
On the other hand, once the rookie Ilya Sorokin settled down and was feeling more comfortable at the NHL level, they had one of the best goaltending duos in the league. One could say it was the best. Sorokin struggled a bit at the beginning, which was expected considering the KHL is very different. But as the games went by, the rookie showed everyone what he is capable of and was brilliant – especially during the playoffs. Varlamov struggled in the first round and Sorokin took over, helping the Islanders turn the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins around to win it on Game 6. No one expected him to play in the playoffs and surely not to win a series. However, he was close to perfect in the first round and showed even more improvement than in the regular season.
The Islanders had a pretty big off-season, considering all the factors. They started by trading Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Richard Panik and a second-round pick in the 2021 Draft. That was the first move to open cap space to sign their free agents. Afterwards, they traded Andrew Ladd‘s gigantic contract to the Arizona Coyotes and shocked everyone. It was a trade everyone was waiting to happen for too long. They lost Jordan Eberle to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft.
With Leddy traded and Eberle picked in the expansion, the Isles now had two important roles to fill. However, Lou Lamoriello proved once again that no one knows anything when it comes to the Islanders. The draft came and no other trades or signings came. Having Adam Pelech, Casey Cizikas, Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin still unsigned was making people upset. Yet, Lamoriello took his time and their first announcement came on August 6, with Pelech agreeing to an eight-year, $46 million contract.
After the Pelech signing, the Island went quiet. A few rumours on some UFAs signing but nothing concrete. Almost a month after Pelech, there was chaos. On September 1st, the Islanders announced Cizikas, Beauvillier, Sorokin and Kyle Palmieri had finally agreed to terms with the team. At the same time. Fans had been waiting on these contracts since day one of free agency but Lamoriello works on his time. The important thing is that everyone important was signed.
Even though they did sign all their most important free agents, two questions still surrounded: would Zach Parise finally go to the Island and who would replace Leddy? Parise had reportedly signed a contract but the confirmation hadn’t come yet. However, on September 10 the Islanders announced he had agreed to a one-year contract and that question has its answer. The Leddy replacement came eight years after, with Zdeno Chara returning to where it all began. Bith additions will be really helpful for the veteran team.
Anders Lee – Mathew Barzal – Kyle Palmieri
Not much has changed on the Islanders’ top six but the changes that did happen will have big impacts on the following season. Their second line didn’t change at all and unless an injury happens, there’s a small probability it will change. However, their top line lost Eberle and even though Palmieri might be a good replacement, coach Barry Trotz has said Wahlstrom will get a look there throughout the season. With Lee back, their top line will probably go back producing like they always do. He and Barzal work amazingly together and for what has been seen of Barzal and Palmieri, it can be a huge success.
The bottom six is where the Islanders have been struggling a bit, more specifically with their third line. They still haven’t been able to get permanent wingers for Pageau and they have been rotating a lot. With Parise arriving, they may solve the problem for this season but Wahlstrom and Palmieri will probably still switch for most of the season. Their fourth line, or how everyone calls it, their Identity Line, is not a problem at all. Signing Cizikas was probably their second-best move of the off-season and keeping the Martin-Cizikas-Clutterbuck group together was as important as signing Beauvillier.
Adam Pelech – Ryan Pulock
Zdeno Chara – Scott Mayfield
Pelech and Pulock are a dynamic duo and will continue playing together – probably for as long as the Islanders can keep them together. They were nearly perfect in the regular season and Pulock single-handed forced a Game 7 in the semi-finals with a beautiful save seconds before Game 6 ended. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but he and Pelech are godly amazing together. There’s no doubt they’ll continue to be amazing in the next season.
Their second pair is a question mark. The best guess is that Chara will play with Mayfield to keep Greene with Dobson but it is unknown if they’ll be the second pair. However, if they are, they can be pretty decent together. Leddy had one of his worst seasons in 2020-21 and even though Chara is old and not as fast, he is still smart and has a unique view of the game. Mayfield will have to work a bit more but the pair can work.
If it is Dobson and Greene, not much will change from the last season. Dobson has been showing signs of improvement since the start of the 2020-21 season and playing with a veteran like Andy Greene has been helping a lot. Having Chara on the team will add a lot more experience for the young defenceman and the knowledge is being shared in the training camp. This year can be a big turn for Dobson, solidifying even more his role with the Islanders.
Varlamov and Sorokin are a great goaltending duo. That’s a fact. They’re probably the best current duo in the league – even though that can be debatable. But one thing that Barry Trotz and the Islanders can count on, is their goalies. Sorokin showed a lot of improvement in his first season and he will likely only get better. Varlamov has been solid ever since he got to the Island, especially in the past two seasons. For now, they don’t have much to worry about in this department.
Players to Watch
Wahlstrom had a pretty decent rookie year before getting a concussion during the playoff series against the Penguins and missing the remaining rounds. That probably means he will come back even more hungry than before to have a great season. He is definitely a great candidate for a player to watch in the upcoming season.
To put it in simple words, the sky is the limit for Sorokin. He has the ability to be a tremendous goalie for the Islanders and will be their number one for years to come. The next season will be crucial for that. His development has been great and that makes him another great candidate for a player to watch in the 2021-22 season.
Prediction for the 2021-22 New York Islanders
Once again, the Islanders are a playoff team. Even more than that, they are a Cup contender. As it has been for a few years now, they probably won’t win the division and will likely be the last team to clinch a spot. However, the odds are pretty high when it comes to them making the playoffs. The fans may be a little hesitant when it comes to their bottom four defensive pairs but Barry Trotz will perform his magic and it will be just fine. With their lineup and their coach, there’s not a single thing that can be said besides that.
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