For the last two seasons, the New York Islanders have been one of the largest enigmas in the NHL.
They don’t boast a bevy of superstars, they don’t play the most entertaining brand of hockey for neutral spectators, and still, they continue to win — fresh off an Eastern Conference Final appearance under the guidance of head coach Barry Trotz.
Now, beginning the 56-game 2021 NHL season on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden against the rival Rangers, the Islanders carry in a largely unchanged squad. That was disappointing to some who yearned for a top-tier goal scorer to address the team’s biggest Achilles Heel, which was a sputtering offense and power play.
The lack of action was the byproduct of tight salary cap space, which forced the team to trade away young defenseman Devon Toews, who was a key contributor to the Islanders’ run to the conference final. There was also plenty of drama surrounding the team’s star center, Mathew Barzal, who was a restricted free agent and did not sign his three-year, $21 million deal until Saturday.
For the largely returning cast, 2021 is about sustaining the success they’ve achieved over the last two seasons and building on it.
“Forget about what we’ve done with the understanding that we haven’t gotten to where we want to get to,” Trotz said. “We’re not sneaking up on anybody… We just have to stay true to the identity that works for us. It may not work for our opponents… but it works for us so let’s make sure that we know who we are, play the way we know we can.
“When we were playing the way we can, we’ve had pretty decent success the last two years. Just build on that. “
The lone changes for this year’s Islanders come in the form of a few youngsters ready to make their jump into every-day action in the NHL.
With the departure of Toews and the unofficial retirement of veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk, the highly-touted 21-year-old blueliner, Noah Dobson, will step in to start on the team’s third defensive pairing alongside veteran defenseman Andy Greene.
Rather than spend the entire 2019-20 season with his junior team, the Islanders opted to keep Dobson around the organization to immerse him in its culture, appearing in 34 regular-season games and one playoff game.
“He’s been around pros for a year, he’s had a little bit of experience,” Trotz said of Dobson. “Now he’s been practicing, playing games, and he’s just grown. I think he’s ready to take on a big piece of ice time this year.”
The Islanders still possess the foundation of one of the best defenses in hockey with Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock expected to take the next step toward elite status in the NHL. The veteran presence of Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield round out the group that has become the Islanders’ calling card under Trotz.
They’re the last line of protection for one of the more intriguing goaltending duos in hockey. Veteran Semyon Varlamov will be given the reigns as the No. 1 goaltender, but it’s simply as a placeholder after the arrival of highly-touted Russian goaltender, Ilya Sorokin.
One of the top international goalie prospects in the world, Sorokin finally joined the Islanders nearly seven years after he was drafted. The 25-year-old is expected to be the team’s franchise goalie of the future while creating a stacked Russian goaltending trio in the Metropolitan Division alongside the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin and the Capitals’ Ilya Samsonov.
On the third line, it appears that 20-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom could assume winger duties to start while 22-year-old Kieffer Bellows and veteran Leo Komarov have been placed on the team’s COVID taxi squad.
The 19th overall pick of the 2016 draft had a strong showing in camp after posting two goals and an assist in an abbreviated eight-game NHL debut last year.
“They look like men,” Trotz said of his youngsters. “Last year, they looked like boys playing with men. That’s the difference…This is a man’s league.”
Maturity and composure will be the name of the game considering the NHL’s COVID-tweaked schedule that has the Islanders playing some of its biggest rivals — like the Rangers, Penguins, and Capitals — eight times.
For projections on where we see the Islanders finishing in the East Division, check out our full NHL preview here.
Islanders 2021 projected lines, pairings, goalies
LW: Anders Lee
C: Mathew Barzal
RW: Jordan Eberle
Barzal is the premier playmaker of this team but he needs consistent scoring support from both Lee and Eberle, who struggled to find the net at times last season.
LW: Anthony Beauvillier
C: Brock Nelson
RW: Josh Bailey
Arguably one of the most reliable lines of the Islanders, this is one of the more underrated trios in hockey. Nelson is on the cusp of stardom and Beauvillier is poised to take the next step of his career as a larger scorer. All the while, the steady veteran presence of Bailey will pull the strings as a leader.
LW: Ross Johnston
C: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
RW: Oliver Wahlstrom
Barry Trotz admitted that Pageau is a reliable, versatile talent capable of playing with an ever-changing combination of linemates. He leads a line that could look very different by year’s end, but Wahlstrom may get the early nod on right-wing while Ross Johnston provides added tenacity — though his offensive skillset is lacking.
LW: Matt Martin
C: Casey Cizikas
RW: Cal Clutterbuck
The best fourth line in hockey is back for more as the Islanders chose to re-sign Martin to a four-year deal. This is the identity line of the Islanders, providing physical, high-energy play that is often momentum-stealing.
Adam Pelech – Ryan Pulock
Nick Leddy – Scott Mayfield
Andy Greene – Noah Dobson