Changes paramount if Islanders want to be in 2023-24 playoff picture

Anders Lee Islanders
Boston Bruins defenseman Mason Lohrei (6) and New York Islanders left wing Anders Lee (27) crash into the boards after colliding in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Thirteen games into the season and Islanders fans are already chanting for the removal of general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Lane Lambert. 

Such is life amidst a four-game losing streak, one exacerbated by a 4-1 loss against a Washington Capitals team that was projected to continue regressing in 2023-24 while the Islanders battled for a wild-card spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Instead, New York sits seventh out of eight teams in the division with 15% of the season already in the rearview mirror. At the same time, the contending windshield in front of them seemingly gets smaller and smaller with each passing game. The same window has been progressively shrinking with each passing year of minimal changes from a team that made a pair of surprising conference final appearances in 2020 and 2021. 

Should this trend continue, it ultimately indicts the organization’s leadership. The Islanders have been plagued by the same issues yearly, and Lamoriello has yet to fix it.

They rank second-to-bottom in the Eastern Conference in goals scored. Their power play, which has received a league-low 35 opportunities, is clicking at a 17.14% chance that is ninth out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference, and ranks 21st overall in the NL. 

With it comes continued loyalty to a long-standing foundation that has struggled to recapture previous successes. 

Lane Lambert Islanders
New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Captain Anders Lee has just one goal and one assist in 13 games this season while flip-flopping between the first and third lines. The fourth line, nearing their 10th year together, has naturally slowed — it’s hard to imagine how difficult it is to keep up the frenzied, game-changing intensity that they have so often put forth for so long. 

Yet Lambert only seems to discipline lesser-tenured or younger players when they struggle or make mistakes, as of late. Pierre Engvall was benched on Thursday against the Bruins — just 12 games into a seven-year contract after being acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs last season — after a turnover led to the Minnesota Wild’s fourth and final goal on Tuesday night. While he hasn’t scored yet this year, he’s an integral part of New York’s best line alongside Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri while leading the team in 5-on-5 assists. 

Oliver Wahlstrom, who could use consistent playing time to prove to the Islanders that he can fit in the long-term picture, scored a brilliant power-play goal Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild but committed a  tripping penalty in the third period on Thursday in Boston. It first resulted in Simon Holmstrom’s shorthanded goal to tie the game at two, but then led to David Pastrnak’s power-play tally 40 seconds later to give the Bruins a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 5-2 win.

The logjam the Islanders currently possess doesn’t help. While Holmstrom has run away with a roster spot, and justly so, last year’s largest surprise, Hudson Fasching, is competing for playing time, too. Julien Gauthier, who provides speed, a plus shot, and potential power-play prowess on the second unit, still hasn’t even dressed for a regular-season game, yet. 

While Lambert has been prone to shuffling his lines in the third period — the proverbial version of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks — the current plan isn’t working and a legitimate shakeup could be in order to provide the spark that the Islanders are searching. That might mean benching more of a veteran player to send the message that no one’s job, regardless of status or past accomplishments, is safe. 

If that doesn’t work, the Islanders could very well be out of this thing by Christmas — and a firesale both on and behind the bench could be in order.

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