ELMONT, N.Y. — I figured that there was no better place to do our first mailbag of the Islanders’ 2023-24 season than in the press box at UBS Arena as we get ready for puck drop on Opening Night with the Buffalo Sabres in town.
We pick a handful of pressing topics to delve into to provide some clarity that fans starve for during the Stanley Cup Playoffs where information is at a premium and speculation is always running rampant.
Want to be featured in the next Islanders mailbag? Tweet your questions to @JoePantorno.
@1liTjm asks: Will [the Islanders] actually have a respectful power play finally this year? Can’t remember the last time we had an even decent PP.
JP: It would be understandable for people to be down on the Islanders’ power play considering the lack of changes (read as true scoring upgrades) for a special-teams unit that hindered a playoff run and ultimately played a key role in them getting bounced out of the postseason.
But there is reason for optimism just by looking at who they’re trotting out on the man advantage. Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal are going to continue jelling and have been inseparable throughout the preseason while on the same unit, Brock Nelson has 35-plus-goal capabilities and Kyle Palmieri is healthy and a gritty skill guy to wreak havoc near the crease. Noah Dobson is the wild card of the first unit. He needs to take a step forward this year and become the end-all-be-all quarterback. The more comfortable he gets, the better things will look.
The second unit isn’t as vital but still needs to generate something to sustain a legitimate power-play attack. Sebastian Aho plays quarterback with Anders Lee up front and Ryan Pulock, Pierre Engvall, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau pulling the strings. Not as flashy, but Lee and Pageau are 20-plus goal scorers, Pulock has one of the hardest shots in the league, and Engvall should be knocking on the door of that 20-goal plateau, as well.
@IslesDen asks: How many games do you think they want to start Varlamov this year? I think resting Sorokin is key this year to have him ready for the playoffs.
JP: If you ask any goaltender, they’ll tell you the challenges of maintaining a high level of play while dealing with significant downtime, so it’ll be important to keep Varlamov in the rotation regularly. A groin injury suffered in December last season paired with the realization that every game by late January was a must-win put most of the load on Sorokin’s plate, playing in 62 games.
Only Rick Dipietro (63 in 2005-06 and 2007-08), Ron Hextall (65 in 1993-94), and Chris Osgood (66 in 2001-02) appeared in more games as a goalie in a single season in Islanders franchise history. It’s a formula that the Islanders — who have always preached the importance of a two-headed goaltending stable — won’t want to repeat, which is why it shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that Varlamov gets 22-to-25 starts.
@isles787 asks: Do you think Julien Gauthier ends up playing more than 40 games this year?
JP: I do, but that seems like the magic over/under number that Vegas so meticulously (and magically) comes to. Simon Holmstrom is getting his tryout on the first line to start the season but if he simply can’t cut it or if injuries strike the roster as they normally do, Gauthier is one of the first men to get the call into the lineup. Of course, this is a competition that will also feature Oliver Wahlstrom, who continues to build his way back up to the rigors of the NHL after not being able to touch the ice for seven months after suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in December.
Gauthier impressed in training camp and in preseason. He has a plus shot and was called to participate in the second power-play unit, so he shouldn’t be short of opportunities.
@agrillo_96 asks: How long before we see Oliver Wahlstrom in the starting lineup? I am guessing that the coaches want him to rehab a little more, ramp up, and get his legs back coming back from injury, is that a correct assessment?
In theory, it shouldn’t be long. Wahlstrom himself said today that he’d be ready to step in and contribute if he was called on immediately.
The problem was that this was a slow preseason for Wahlstrom, who looked like he was trying to shake off an abundance of rust while getting comfortable with his surgically repaired knee that will feature a brace for at least the next season. The intangibles are still there, though, which is why the Islanders will give him his chance. He’s still only 23 years old and wants to prove that he can be a sniping power forward who could one day slot onto the right wing of the first line (if Holmstrom doesn’t pan out).
If I were to guess — and this is nothing but pure speculation — I’d say within the first 10 games of the season, you’ll see him.