The New York Islanders have a mediocre offence. Brock Nelson scored a team-leading 37 goals during the 2021-22 season, ranking 22nd in goals scored amongst all players. He did this while playing most of the year on the second line. Nelson stood as a lone bright spot for the offence last season. Top-line stars like Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee struggled with an ever-rotating lineup that saw players like Kyle Palmieri and Josh Bailey fail to generate points. The Islanders’ powerplay, ranked 22nd in goals last season, looked dreadful with each opportunity. Nelson and Lee scored 20 of the 46 goals by the powerplay unit. The Islanders won’t return to the postseason without changes to the offence.
Sparking the Islanders Offence
A New Voice
Following a tumultuous season marred by Covid and skill regression, Islanders management fired coach Barry Trotz and replaced him with Lane Lambert. Lambert has been a part of Trotz’s coaching tree since 2011 as an assistant of the Nashville Predators. Despite this being his first opportunity as head coach, general manager Lou Lamoriello praised Lambert as a “new voice” in the locker room.
“Once the decision was made to make a coaching change, then the total focus was on who would be the best individual to lead this team… and Lane, without question, was on top of that list from my experiences with him over the past four years, and in particular, not only working with him as an assistant coach but working with him for over two weeks when he was the head coach,” Lamoriello said.
Lambert has to overhaul an offensive system that hasn’t changed much over the past four seasons. With the Islanders up against the salary cap, trading or signing a goal scorer is hard to accomplish. On top of that, most of the Islanders’ current roster is under long-term contracts. Without pairing a player with a pick, these multi-year contracts would be hard to move, meaning the Islanders are probably rolling out the current roster with little change.
So, how can the Islanders’ offence improve? The hope is that Lambert can open up the offence and not be afraid to rely on younger players who can score. He should focus on increasing the number of shots taken per game, let chemistry build between linemates, and get the defence to step up at their own blue line. With any increase in these three attributes, the Islanders can see themselves in the playoff picture again.
Shooting the Puck More
The New York Islanders took 2,367 shots last season. That ranked 30th in the NHL in 2021-22, trailing the league-leading Florida Panthers by nearly 700 shots. However, the Islanders scored 229 goals, ranking 23rd. These are not great numbers by any means, but it shows that the team was scoring at above-average percentages when they shot the puck. The Islanders scored 102 goals on 1,208 shots through the first half of the season. That’s a shot percentage of 8.44 percent, which would have ranked them 30th in the NHL last year. The Islanders finished the season at 9.7 percent, showing they did better as a team when they eventually shot the puck more.
The caveat with last season was the Covid outbreak amongst the team in November. Seven players missed multiple games with the illness, and the team went on an 11-game losing streak over that month. The Islanders needed too much time to get the season under control, and that’s why they ultimately missed the playoffs.
The logic behind taking more shots is pretty simple, the more shots you take, the more goals you score. The Islanders shot percentage was just above league average last season, and the team could be more competitive with goals if they take more shots. Lambert needs to trust guys like Oliver Wahlstrom, Matt Barzal, Kyle Palmieri, and Anthony Beauvillier to get their shot percentages up. All four players saw massive regressions from previous seasons, and none of their stats from last year had them on pace with the typical NHL scorer.
Trotz became increasingly impatient with the offence as the 2021-22 season went on. Amidst all the other problems last season, the team changed the top-line personnel numerous times. Half of the forwards on the team started on the first line at some point during the season, not including replacements due to Covid. Lambert must focus on setting the lines and not questioning himself too much. Most of the offence is going into their third season playing together. Lambert must identify where the synergy connects among linemates and stick to his guns.
This is not a potent offensive team, so he can not be rash and change the lines game-to-game. Lambert needs to be patient when adapting a new offensive strategy. He will need to trust the veterans on the team to adjust. That’s a lot to ask of a team that has played a certain way for so long. However, the Islanders looked lost throughout the first half of the season. If Lambert can’t make positive changes, the Isles are in for another long season.
More Aggressive Defense at the Blue Line
The Islanders’ defence and goaltending were phenomenal last year, allowing just 2.8 goals per game. The penalty kill was elite, too, killing off just over 84 percent of the powerplays faced. However, players like Andy Greene and Zdeno Chara lacked the speed to keep the puck out of the Islanders zone. Opponents would dump the puck past the Islanders’ defence, then trap them close to their own net. Opposing teams could control the game’s pace and wear out the Islanders’ forwards. Chara and Greene are very smart players and helped on the defensive end but were too slow in getting the puck up ice.
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Lambert could direct his defence to be more stingy in the neutral zone, preventing the trap from happening. Lamoriello’s sole acquisition this offseason was a trade for a young defenseman. In July, the Islanders traded a 2022 first-round pick for Alexander Romanov. The 22-year-old averaged over 20 minutes of ice time for the Montreal Canadiens last season. Romanov packs a punch, as he ranked 20th in hits last year. He will likely play on the second defensive pairing with Dobson, while Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock take the top pairing. The third pairing is still not set but projected to be Scott Mayfield next to Robin Salo.
All six defensemen are under thirty and are not strangers to physical play. Lambert can use the defence’s speed to create traps in the neutral zone, setting up the offensive to break out. This strategy would help Barzal, who has the speed and skill in open space, to make defenders miss. In contrast, if the defence is more aggressive at the blue line, they might get caught in a bad situation and give up a scoring chance to an opponent. However, the Islanders lineup is full of forwards who know how to play well in their own zone. The Islanders’ top four defenders have enough speed and skill to cover for broken plays. Stopping the puck before it gets into the Islanders’ zone will help create more offence.
The New York Islanders can have a competent offence with subtle adjustments. The roster needs to trust Lane Lambert when he changes around the offence for the upcoming season. Lambert is in good graces of management for the time being, but the expectation is high for 2022-23. A repeat of last season is unacceptable for general manager Lou Lamoriello, as this team is still seen as competitive. The Islanders can make a playoff run if the offence is decent for most of the year. Lambert needs the Islanders to shoot more, create line chemistry, and make the defence more aggressive.
While not every strategy will work, these three schemes can set up the offence for success. Defensive pressure can create more room for forwards to change momentum. Consistent lineups help players’ morale and establish roles for each line. The Islanders will score more goals if they shoot more, even if the shooting percentage dips below league average. To be successful this season, the Islanders don’t need to be a top-ten goal-scoring team. The team has a deep core, good defence, and good goaltending. The focus should be on improving the offence and reestablishing the group as a Stanley Cup contender.
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