EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — There is an abundance of questions surrounding the Islanders with their 2023-24 season finally kicking off on Saturday night against the Buffalo Sabres at UBS Arena.
If answered correctly, they’re a playoff team squeaking out of a top-heavy Metropolitan Division. If not, the new season will be spent much like last year — playing catch-up.
Here are five big questions that the Islanders need to answer this season.
Will the power play click?
A well-oiled power play has been something that’s eluded the Islanders for years, now. It most recently derailed their chances in the first round of the playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes, going 1-for-18 in the six-game loss.
They’ve shown much of the very same units throughout the preseason and are hoping that time to mesh will provide an improvement. After all, in theory, Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat are top-tier playmakers while Brock Nelson has flirted with 40 goals in each of the last two seasons and Noah Dobson has shown flashes of becoming a bona fide power-play quarterback.
“It needs to be better,” Barzal said. “It just has to be. If we’re going to be in the playoffs and win, we’re going to need a good power play.”
Can the first line work?
Mathew Barzal has had to adjust playing on the wing, but a late audible has seen Lane Lambert shift the playmaker from the right side to the left — a move that Barzal himself asked for. Now 100% healthy after missing the final two months of the regular season, he and Horvat looked as any threatening first-line duo should in the seven games they got together.
Now Barzal is more comfortable and Horvat has had an offseason to settle into his new home — and big things are expected from them. But what about the right-wing?
Simon Holmstrom has run away with the job during training camp, the 22-year-old getting a prime opportunity to take the next step in his NHL career after posting three goals in 50 games last year.
“He’s smart, big, has silky hands, a good shot,” Barzal said of Holmstrom. “He’s got a little bit of everything and then the more he gets comfortable out there winning battles, once he gets comfortable using his size a little more, he’s going to catch some people off guard.”
If they click, the Islanders suddenly have an imposing top-six with the second unit of Pierre Engvall, Brock Nelson, and Kyle Palmieri being the team’s most valuable unit down the stretch last year.
Will Noah Dobson take a step forward?
A lot is beginning to ride on the 23-year-old as he begins his fourth full NHL season. Not only will he be tasked in becoming that top-tier power-play quarterback, but more is needed from his defensive game. It’s why the Islanders have split up the young pairing of him and fellow 23-year-old Alex Romanov and deployed them with last year’s top unit of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. Dobson is paired with Pelech while Romanov is working with Pulock.
If Dobson truly is the No. 1 defenseman of the future and a potential Norris Trophy candidate down the road, the steps forward will have to come often.
What’s happening with the third line?
Even with Zach Parise’s future very much uncertain as he continues to mull retirement, the Islanders brought in Julien Gauthier to provide another dimension to a competition for the right-wing spot alongside Oliver Wahlstrom and Hudson Fasching.
Gauthier looked strong in preseason, earning a spot on the opening-night roster, but it appears as though Fasching will get the nod to start on the third line alongside Anders Lee on the left and Jean-Gabriel Pageau at center.
Fasching came out of nowhere to be the Islanders’ most pleasant surprise of the season where he’ll ultimately be a future fourth-liner. Given his two-way game, he appears to be the safest option for now as Gauthier continues to work on his two-way game while Wahlstrom — returning from a 2022-23 season-ending Achilles injury in December — still has work to do to get back into the groove of a full season.