Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 New York Islanders.
2023-24 New York Islanders
Year two of Lane Lambert out in Long Island this season. Will the 2023-24 Islanders return to the team they were in 2019-20 and 2020-21? Or will it be more of the same? Well, there is a lot of excitement in the room. First, coming from Bo Horvat, who said, “It was a good off-season, I’m feeling good going into camp. But I think just mostly being settled… being able to skate with the guys and being able to actually have a training camp under my belt going into the season is going to be a lot better.”
Then, it was Mathew Barzal, who said, “I’m confident in this group… I love where we are at with the deals we got this summer… We added some good size, but the core, it’s in and we’ve got to make it happen.” This Islanders team is a good one, there’s no doubt. But offence has been lacklustre for a while, and to make the playoffs once again, they need more from those two guys offensively.
Last season, the Islanders held a record of 42-31-9 and qualified for the playoffs, finishing fourth in their division. But they were met with a tough test in the first round, getting bounced by the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round. But, there were positives that the team can take from it all.
The aforementioned Horvat has games with this squad under his belt, after being acquired at the trade deadline from the Vancouver Canucks. Simon Holmstrom, a former first-round pick, got his first taste of NHL action. So did other youngsters, William Dufour, and Samuel Bolduc. Finally, Ilya Sorokin established himself as a Vezina calibre goalie, with a .924 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average, finishing as the Vezina runner-up.
This off-season was not a busy one for the Islanders. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. They retained their guys and made the necessary moves in order to do so. They let go of Josh Bailey (and a second round pick) to free up cap space. With it, they made several extensions. They also did not bring back Zach Parise, but he is still available and could be brought back.
To start. They re-signed Semyon Varlamov to a four-year deal for $2.75 million per year, solidifying their back-up to Sorokin. Speaking of, they extended him as well (kicks in after this season) with an eight-year deal worth $8.25 million per year. “I like Long Island., I like team, I like organization. I didn’t want to change nothing. So contract was not for me, it was for team.” was how Sorokin explained the deal.
The Islanders and Lou Lameriello then focused on other free agents. They also extended defenceman Scott Mayfield, with a seven-year deal worth $3.5 million per year, locking up a nine-year vet who has consistently played over 19 minutes a game with the team. They also went and signed veteran Pierre Engvall, after he managed nine points in his first 18 games with the Islanders after he arrived.
Finally, they extended a potentially important Restricted Free Agent in Oliver Wahlstrom.
2023-24 Islanders Lineup Predictions
Oliver Wahlstrom – Bo Horvat – Mathew Barzal
The 2023-24 Islanders top six might look a bit different here. Where’s Lee, right? Well, Wahlstrom has a believer in his head coach, as Lambert responded to a question about him recovering from injury saying, “I’m excited. I knew the game where he went down that we were going to miss him, and we did… He’s had a great summer.” So, why not get him on the top line? Barzal is a high-end playmaker, looking to open up his offensive game a bit more. Wahlstrom is a big body who gets to the dirty areas and can really fire a puck. Horvat can park himself in front and put home tips and rebounds, and just glue the line together.
Meanwhile, that second-line is the same as it was to end the season last year. They were actually the 34th ranked line combination in over 130 minutes of time together last season in expected goals percentage (58.5%). They were 30th in expected goals against. Nelson, the long-time Islander, will lead that line again. Palmieri, who had 33 points in 55 games last season, is looking to produce more with a consistent line. Engvall, on the other hand, is the wild card. Lee could be here, or he could be on the top line, while Wahlstrom gets the second line spot. But his size and speed combination is a welcome site.
It is very interesting looking at the bottom six. Lee will likely not stick in the bottom six, having scored 50 points last season, and was two goals shy of 30. Again, he could easily be on the top line. However, Wahlstrom brings an upside that Lee no longer has. Meanwhile, he is paired up with Pageau and Fasching. That’s notable, because Fasching and Pageau were on a line with Zach Parise (currently a free agent), and that combo finished ranked ninth in the league in expected goals for percentage (63.3%). Lee could add more offence to that combination, which could make them more efficient.
The fourth line, however, is anything but interesting. It’s the same old fourth line that the Islanders have run for years now. It may be this trio’s last dance, however. But Lambert seems set on keeping them together, for now. “I don’t think there’s a whole bunch of experimenting to do with that line… I think we know what they bring.” As mentioned earlier, though, young players like Holmstrom and Dufour, among others, are knocking on the door.
Alexander Romanov – Scott Mayfield
The top four is as expected for the Islanders. Pelech and Pulock played the most minutes together of any Islanders pair last season, with over 100 minutes more than the next closest pair (Romanov and Mayfield). So, no surprises there.
The second pair probably raises some eyebrows, however. But Dobson had success with just about anyone he played with last season. As a matter of fact, of any pair with over 130 minutes played together, Dobson and Pulock together had the best expected goals for percentage on the team (61.9%). But last season, he spent most of his time with Aho, with much success (52.3 xGF%, ranked fourth on the team). Why not bring that pair back together again?
That bottom pair of Romanov and Mayfield is reunited this upcoming season as well. The reason being; while they didn’t have a ton of success in terms of expected goals for percentage (45.2%, tied for 27th worst in the league amongst pairs with more than 250 minutes together), there’s one positive. They had an expected goals for total of 22.4, which ranked third on the team last season. Funny enough, the two pairs ahead of them? Pelech-Pulock and Aho-Dobson. If offence is going to be a bigger focus this upcoming season, why not start with these pairs and see how it goes?
Sorokin is looking to be a Vezina candidate once again this season. He has done nothing but impress everyone since joining the Islanders in the NHL. Which should make it more understandable why the defensive pairs should be as it is listed above. Sorokin is as good as a team could ask for in net, so take more chances. You have a reliable last line of defence.
Meanwhile, for Sorokin’s nights off, Varlamov is a strong back-up to have. He was extended for a reason. Having posted save percentages of 0.929, 0.911, and 0.913 over the last three seasons, he’s done more than enough to warrant that extension. Having these two guard the crease, it should give coaches a collective breath of relief.
Players to Watch
The hype has always been there for Wahlstrom. He was hardly given an opportunity early on, between tough love from Barry Trotz, to a coaching change that offered a bit more leeway. But an injury cut that opportunity short, too. Now, on a team that is desperate for more offence, he could get his best look yet. And he will be vital to the success of the team.
If he does wind up playing on the top line, as mentioned, there’s reason to believe he could find success. Barzal has the puck skills to set anyone up for scoring chances, and Wahlstrom is as good a shooter as any in the league today. Add the fact that Horvat is as dangerous as it gets as a net-front presence, and that could lead to quite a lot of goals for Wahlstrom.
Wahlstrom scoring could lead to a better offensive rhythm. That means confidence for guys like Barzal and Horvat. More confidence means more results, and it cycles. That doesn’t mean all that weight is on Wahlstrom’s shoulders, but it does display just how important he can be. Easily the most important player to watch this season.
Why Pageau? Well, for one, he is coming off a 40-point campaign. But he is slated for a smaller role, especially because of Horvat sticking around for the long haul. But in the event the Islanders struggle and are looking to sell off some assets at the 2023 NHL trade deadline, then Pageau could be on his way out.
That said, if Islanders fans want a good return for the veteran, him having a good season could do just that. Meanwhile, if the Islanders have success this year and look to be playoff contenders, Pageau being the third line center behind Horvat and Nelson is not too shabby. That’s a deep lineup down the middle, and could pave the way for that deep playoff run Islanders fans have been longing to experience again.
Prediction for the 2023-24 New York Islanders
The 2023-24 Islanders are an older team than most, that’s no secret. Their “identity line” is on its last legs. They failed to add a true offensive dynamo (cough DeBrincat cough) that they have been longing for. Yet, there is optimism. Again, if Wahlstrom hits, the depth with Lee and Pageau on the third line, and what’s expected to be a solid second line based on last season, then they could be a legit contender.
But that is no easy feat. The Metropolitan Division is no cake walk. The Pittsburgh Penguins narrowly missed out, and they’re looking for revenge, as are the Washington Capitals. The Columbus Blue Jackets certainly improved as well. Plus, we all know about the New York Rangers, Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils.
That said, making the playoffs is easier said than done. There are simply too many questions about this roster, and the lack of offence compared to the rest of the division, let alone league, is tough to simply turn around. The 2023-24 Islanders will compete. But the odds are stacked against them when it comes to actually contending for a playoff spot at the end of the year.
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