The New York Islanders begin their 2021-22 season tonight when they take on the Carolina Hurricanes on the road. This will be the Islanders’ first game after having their hearts broken in game 7 in the conference finals. With that in mind, the expectations for this year’s team are as high as they’ve been in a while. The team’s image has gone from a bunch of scrappy underdogs to bonafide cup contenders. Here’s a preview of their all-important 2021-22 season.
Given the state of their salary cap situation, the Islanders had to part ways with some significant players over the offseason. One of those players was Jordan Eberle, who the Islanders left exposed in the expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken. Eberle had been a fixture on the Islanders’ first line for a number of years, developing great chemistry with Anders Lee and Mat Barzal. They’ll definitely miss him, but they have a quality replacement in play with the newly re-signed Kyle Palmieri. The other key loss the Islanders endured over the offseason was defenseman Nick Leddy. Leddy was part of the team’s resurgence when he, along with Johnny Boychuk, were acquired in 2015. In his time with the team, Leddy was a regular amongst the Islanders’ top-four defensemen. But like Eberle, he’s being replaced by a quality veteran in Zdeno Chara.
As mentioned, Zdeno Chara is one of the newest members of the New York Islanders, joining the team on a one-year deal. It was a thin market for an affordable, left-handed defenseman. Chara may not be the exact kind of puck-moving defenseman that Leddy was, but he certainly was the best available. He will be a very valuable asset for the always defensive-minded Islanders. On the offensive side of the puck, the Islanders signed left winger Zach Parise to a one-year deal. Parise has consistently been a great goal scorer in the NHL, and has even done so later into his career. His role on the third line is much needed as the third-line left-wingers from last year’s team were less than ideal. His offensive prowess will help elevate the game of J.G. Pageau and rookie breakout Oliver Wahlstrom.
Will the Offense Improve?
The Islanders still stand as one of the league’s best defensive teams, but have a somewhat suspect offense. Even with a solid offseason, there are some questions about that offense still remaining. Leddy and Eberle were both significant parts of the offensive attack as well as the power play. Palmieri is a trustworthy offensive player to work on the first line, but some may wonder if his net-front game is too similar to Lee’s to be effective together. On top of that, there isn’t really an established, puck-moving defenseman like Leddy on the team. The team will be hoping that Noah Dobson will improve in that category going forward and be somewhat of a substitute for Leddy, especially on the power play.
But on the more positive side, Anders Lee’s return will be a huge boost to the offense. Lee was in the midst of an outstanding offensive season before tearing his ACL. Most of the team’s significant struggles last season came after Lee’s injury. Having him back will help the offense look less lethargic than it did after his injury. With the addition of Parise as well, the Islanders add a great player with a much-needed shoot-first mentality. The overall offense should be much elevated from the low quality of play they were exhibiting at the end of last season. But this is also a group that is one injury away from having a more volatile, inconsistent attack. The Islanders will be hoping for good health amongst their top three lines to maintain a quality attack.
A Bigger Role for Ilya Sorokin
Last season, rookie Ilya Sorokin largely took a backseat in favor of Semyon Varlamov. But after an impressive rookie season and doing some quality work in the playoffs, he might earn more starts this season. He already has a great opportunity as he’ll be the starter for the beginning of the year while Varlamov deals with an injury. If he plays at the same quality he was playing in the first round of the playoffs, this goalie situation may be a true 50/50 split. No matter what Sorokin does, Varlamov has been just too talented to fully be delegated to a backup role. But having two goalies playing a quality game is a problem the team would love to have. Sorokin improving on his already great first season would really put this team over the top as a defensive powerhouse.
Season Evaluation: It’s Stanley Cup or Bust
It’s clear the Islanders are well past the “we’re just happy to be here” phase of postseason contention. The last two seasons have set a precedent for this team to be amongst the league’s legitimate contenders. Anything less than raising the Stanley Cup is going to mean a failed season for this Islanders team. That declaration may seem a little dramatic, but this team has no time to waste. They’re an aging team with some difficult salary cap issues to try and manage through. This year is a prime opportunity for them, as it’ll likely be the only year all of Chara, Parise and Varlamov will be a part of the team. And after back-to-back conference final losses, falling short of the championship will be a major gut punch to this team. The Islanders will have to be playing at the highest level this season if they hope to finish the job and win the Stanley Cup in 2022.
Featured image courtesy of NHL
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