For as much as things change in the National Hockey League, the majority of things stay the same for the New York Islanders.
Following an offseason that was focused on retaining their foundational pieces — Lou Lamoriello re-signed Scott Mayfield, Semyon Varlamov, and Pierre Engvall while extending Ilya Sorokin on an eight-year deal — the Islanders inch toward their 2023-24 season opener (Saturday vs. Buffalo Sabres, UBS Arena) following a first-round playoff exit with a roster that looks very much the same from last year. The only key difference is that veteran winger Zach Parise, who didn’t attend training camp, continues to mull over retirement while the Islanders keep the door open for him should the 39-year-old want to return.
The formula for their success remains the same. New York has one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL with a top-10 defensive unit manning the ramparts in front of Sorokin and Varlamov. It all comes down to what kind of offensive contributions await this season with an onus on an unproven power play and the two top lines that should make some noise over a full season together.
2023-24 Islanders preview: Offense
1st Line: Simon Holmstrom – Bo Horvat – Mathew Barzal
Barzal begins his first full season as a right-winger after spending much of the first six seasons of his NHL career as the organization’s first-line center, making room for Horvat as he begins his first full year with the Islanders after being acquired from the Vancouver Canucks in January.
The duo played just seven games together in the regular season before Barzal went down with an injury and this preseason has seen the two be inseparable.
“It’s good. We’re ready,” Barzal said. “It’s really good, so we’re excited to get going.”
But the left wing of that first line remains a sizable question mark. Simon Holmstrom, who scored just three goals in 50 games during his rookie year last season, appears to be the favorite to slot into that role for the time being. He had spent the most time with Horvat and Barzal during training camp, though Anders Lee could be seen as a logical option here, as well.
“Whoever it is,” Barzal began, “Holmstrom, Lee… we’ll make it work.”
2nd Line: Pierre Engvall – Brock Nelson – Kyle Palmieri
The trio of Engvall, Nelson, and Palmieri was the Islanders’ most valuable line down the stretch last season after Engvall was picked up from the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline. In just 14 regular-season games together, the line posted 15 goals with a plus-9 goal differential.
Engvall’s contributions led to a career season in which he scored 17 goals overall between his time with the Leafs and Islanders while Nelson flirted with 40 goals for a second-straight season.
Palmieri looks as though he’ll be ready for opening night on Saturday at UBS Arena despite picking up a preseason training injury that kept him out for the first two weeks of training camp. This could very well be his first full season with the Islanders after missing 40 games over the last two seasons.
3rd Line: Anders Lee – Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Hudson Fasching/Julien Gauthier
The most changed line compared to last season, Parise’s uncertain status opens the door for the Islanders to flex Lee, who scored 28 goals for the second straight season, down to the third line where he would provide scoring depth.
Pageau remains a prototypical third-line center — a staunch face-off man with the ability to play both sides of the special teams game — after surviving initial trade rumors that linked him back to his former team, the Ottawa Senators, in talks involving Alex DeBrincat.
What the Islanders plan to do at the right-wing spot remains unseen, though. Fasching earned himself a two-year contract after a strong showing last season that earned him long-awaited regular playing time. But he’s been entrenched in a battle with Julien Gauthier and Oliver Wahlstrom — the former putting together a strong preseason that could potentially push Fasching out.
Wahlstrom, meanwhile, has had a slow preseason after recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury last year and appears to be the odd man out.
4th Line: Matt Martin – Casey Cizikas – Cal Clutterbuck
The identity line, MC-squared, ol’ reliable. Whatever you call it, the trio that have spent nearly a decade together are getting at least one more chance at a run together with father time bearing down on them.
Is this their last go-around? Clutterbuck is a free agent after this season, and so is Martin. Meanwhile, Cizikas showed promise working with Fasching last season, who could very well be the heir-apparent on the fourth line.
2023-24 Islanders preview: Defense
Adam Pelech – Noah Dobson
The Islanders have separated their top two defensive pairs from last season, putting their top defensive defenseman in Pelech alongside the young Dobson, who will be tasked with taking a step forward on that side of the puck. Putting Dobson with Pelech certainly won’t hurt.
Alexander Romanov – Ryan Pulock
Romanov is ready to go after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery and his split from Dobson will have him working with Pulock — the hard-shooting blue liner who will get time on the power play and the penalty kill. The 23-year-old Romanov is coming off a career-best season in which he posted two goals and 20 assists, but his puck possession skills in the defensive zone will need to take a step forward.
Sebastian Aho – Scott Mayfield
Mayfield, who was re-signed over the summer, will lead a third defensive pairing that will give Sebastian Aho another opportunity to stake his claim on the big club. He appeared in a career-high 71 games with five goals, 18 assists, and a plus-9 rating.
2023-24 Islanders preview: Goalies
Arguably one of the top netminders in the league, Sorokin is once again expected to make a push for the Vezina Trophy. He went 31-22-7 last season with a league-leading six shutouts to go with a 2.34 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. The Islanders will go as he goes in 2023-24 and he’ll be the most important asset of their playoff push.
The veteran goaltender appeared to not give much of a thought about going elsewhere to regain starting time. Instead, his friendship with Sorokin fueled his return to Long Island where he’ll be tasked with supporting the No. 1 goalie both on and off the ice.
2023-24 Islanders preview: Prediction
96 points, 4th in Metropolitan Division, Lose in 1st round to Toronto Maple Leafs
The Islanders’ goaltending and defense put them above the Pittsburgh Penguins for the No. 4 spot in the Metropolitan Division, which will be just enough to earn them the first Wild Card spot. But the offense and the sputtering power play need to legitimately show improvement before we can assume that they actually can. For now, that’s what will be their downfall, which is why they’ll struggle against a high-powered offensive team should they meet them in the first round of the playoffs.