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2021-22 Islanders preview: Stanley Cup or bust? Stanley Cup or bust

Mathew Barzal Islanders
Mathew Barzal and the Islanders have high hopes heading into 2021-22.
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The whole is the sum of its parts. That has been the philosophy of the New York Islanders since the arrival of Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello three years ago — taking a franchise and roster that had long been an afterthought and developing them into a force.

Now, with the 2021-22 season upon them with opening night on Thursday in Carolina against the Hurricanes, there is a whole lot of unfinished business the Islanders have to attend to.

This is a team that was one game from the Stanley Cup Final, pushing the Tampa Bay Lightning to seven games in the semifinal stage last season — a year after they bowed out in the Eastern Conference Final to the very same team in six games.

The Lightning is still one of the favorites to win a third-straight Stanley Cup, but the Islanders are locked and loaded and have plenty of motivation.

“I think our whole group has that fire,” star center Mathew Barzal said. “You don’t want to come into this season with emotions too high or thinking about getting back to the Eastern Conference Final Game 7.

“It’s about coming in, having a first good game, first good road trip, first good month… and things will work themselves out.”

That diligent approach has been ingrained into the foundation of the organization with the understanding that they’ll have to put together a consistent performance for an 82-game season — something they haven’t done in the last two years — before potentially making another playoff run.

“Everyone’s happy to be back coming off two long runs and being where we were,” second-line center Brock Nelson said. “You look ahead a little bit but you have to reel it back in… I think everybody’s getting ready to go and feeling solid.”

Nelson, Barzal, and much of the Islanders’ core returns for another run at the Cup. A healthy Anders Lee provides an enormous boost to the team’s offense that has long been looked upon as the one Achilles heel of the Islanders. 

They lost Jordan Eberle to the expansion draft, but retained Kyle Palmieri — who they acquired from the New Jersey Devils after Lee went down with a season-ending ACL injury in March — to take over on the first line. The Long Island native has averaged 26 goals from 2016-2020 while Lee is a former 40-goal scorer — two guys poised to take advantage of the superstar skilset Barzal provides.

Elsewhere, the 21-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom has an opportunity to show that he can be the Islanders’ offensive boost. The young talent can be the sniper the team has sorely missed as he’ll play on a third line featuring Jean-Gabriel Pageau at center and the veteran Zach Parise, who finally will suit up for the same team his father did 18 years after the Islanders passed on him at the 2003 draft.

What could very well be an x-factor this season is the second line, which remained untouched again this offseason.

Nelson should flirt with 30 goals this season while a streaky Anthony Beauvillier could do the same with some consistency; not to mention the playmaking abilities of the longest-tenured Islander in Josh Bailey. 

A big season from those two should be all the offense the Islanders need to get over the top and into the Cup Final.

Rounding it all out, as steadily as ever, is the Islanders’ tireless fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck. The trio managed to stay together despite Cizikas heading to free agency where he and the Islanders agreed to a six-year pact. 

2021-22 Islanders Projected Lines

Anders Lee – Mathew Barzal – Kyle Palmieri

Anthony Beauvillier – Brock Nelson – Josh Bailey

Zach Parise – Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Oliver Wahlstrom

Matt Martin – Casey Cizikas – Cal Clutterbuck

 

To the backbone of the Islanders, one of the best defenses in the league did undergo some tweaks after the cap crunch forced Lou Lamoriello to deal Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings.

It led to a reunion for the ages as Zdeno Chara, drafted 25 years earlier by the Islanders, signed a one-year deal with New York 20 years after he was dealt to the Ottawa Senators. 

The 44-year-old future Hall-of-Famer will adopt a mentoring role for 21-year-old Noah Dobson on the Islanders’ third pairing as the two were inseparable throughout training camp. 

Dobson’s former mentor, Andy Greene, bumps up to the second pairing with Scott Mayfield while Adam Pelech — one of the top blueliners in the game and someone who should receive Norris Trophy consideration — pairs with Ryan Pulock and his vicious slapper that will be keen on improving offensive production at the top of the depth chart. 

2021-22 Islanders Projected Defense

Adam Pelech – Ryan Pulock

Andy Greene – Scott Mayfield

Zdeno Chara – Noah Dobson

 

The Islanders will return their Russian duo of goaltending this year as 33-year-old Semyon Varlamov continues to lead a tandem with second-year future star, Ilya Sorokin. 

They should be in the conversation for the William M. Jennings Trophy this year as the qualified goalie(s) who allow the fewest goals in the NHL this year. However, Varlamov will be out the first few games of the season as he recovers from a nagging, undisclosed injury. It allows Sorokin the opportunity to be the No. 1 guy in the crease for the beginning portions of the 2021-22 season.

What should we expect from the Islanders?

More of the same: A stout defense and a deep roster that accepts the responsibilities of two-way hockey. 

Will they be able to maintain that intense, playoff brand of hockey for an entire 82-game season? There might be some lulls, but the addition of Parise and the potential arrival of Wahlstrom could see an offensive improvement that takes some regular-season pressure off the defense.

This team could very well be winning their division for the first time since 1988 and making their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 38 years.

The problem is that a buzzsaw in the Colorado Avalanche could very well be looming in the Final, which could potentially see the Islanders fall short of their ultimate goal. But they’ll be close again.

Metropolitan Division Predictions

  1. New York Islanders
  2. Washington Capitals
  3. Carolina Hurricanes
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins
  5. New York Rangers
  6. Philadelphia Flyers
  7. New Jersey Devils
  8. Columbus Blue Jackets

Eastern Conference Playoffs, 1st Round: Islanders def. Bruins

Eastern Conference Playoffs, 2nd Round: Islanders def. Hurricanes

Eastern Conference Final: Islanders def. Lightning

Stanley Cup Final: Avalanche def. Islanders

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