New York Islanders 2019-20 Rewind
Leading scorers: Brock Nelson (26 goals); Mathew Barzal (60 points)
For another season, Barry Trotz’s Islanders defied expectations. They finished just two wins shy of an appearance in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, giving the eventual champion Lightning some real headaches.
If this trend continues, the hockey world will need to drop any pretense of the Islanders being “underdogs.”
Then again, there are still a few “Yes, but …” thoughts tugging at those threads, with varying degrees of force. Yes, the Islanders made a deep playoff run, but they also finished the regular season on the bubble. Before that pandemic pause, the Islanders dropped a troubling seven games in a row. They actually allowed one more goal (193) than they scored (192) through 68 contests.
Islanders fans will counter that the deep playoff run cemented their team as one to take seriously. And they’re right. But there’s still room for things to swing either way.
After indulging in trading and extending Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the Islanders felt a real salary cap squeeze. Crucial center Mathew Barzal still awaits a contract as an RFA. The team faces some uncertainty in net, as Thomas Greiss is out, while Ilya Sorokin is in. And we’ll find out soon enough how much the Islanders miss Devon Toews.
What should we expect from the Islanders in 2020-21? The answer likely varies from person to person, and even fan to fan.
Devon Toews (trade), Thomas Greiss (free agency), Johnny Boychuk (retirement), Derick Brassard (free agency), Tom Kuhnhackl (free agency)
3 Most Interesting New York Islanders
• Ilya Sorokin: With Semyon Varlamov still around, it’s not as though Sorokin needs to jump straight into a starter’s role. Really, he’s most likely to either be a 1B or straight-up backup. That said, the Trotz-era Islanders have thrived with two good-to-great goalies. First, Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss sparkled. After that, Varlamov and Greiss carried much of that strong play over to last season.
Can a Varlamov – Sorokin partnership produce similar results?
To some extent, the argument is that Trotz’s system does much of the work for his goalies. That may generally be true, yet with some key losses on defense, Tortz may ask for more from his netminders. Previous duos set the bar pretty high.
• Supporting defensemen like Nick Leddy, Scott Mayfield: Personally, the loss of Devon Toews looks a lot more painful than Johnny Boychuk’s unexpected retirement. Boychuk enjoyed some great years in the NHL, but a long career of wear-and-tear showed even before he hung up the skates.
To replace Toews in particular, the Islanders will need to ask for more from other defensemen. To some extent, that might boil down to leaning that much more on Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. Ideally, others like Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield may be able to absorb some of that burden, too.
(Now, if this is all a way to take the training wheels off of Noah Dobson? That could be interesting …)
Wherever the excess workload falls, the Islanders face a challenging balancing act.
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• Oliver Wahlstrom: All of that said, you know what can help a team overcome certain losses on defense, and maybe in net? Scoring some goals.
As dazzling as Mathew Barzal can be, the Islanders also want to score by committee. Sometimes young players can make big jumps, so it’s possible that Wahlstrom gives the Islanders a shot in the arm as soon as 2020-21.
Then again, it’s not a guarantee that he’ll be a full-time NHL regular, either. But that makes him pretty interesting to watch.
It may not always produce the most exhilarating hockey, but Barry Trotz’s system works more often than it does not. Every year, Trotz gets that much more time to impart his defensive wisdom on this Islanders team, and it’s possible that everything will work in even greater harmony in 2020-21. Perhaps they’d get just enough offense, combined with stellar goaltending and that airtight system, and suffocate opponents enough to raise the Stanley Cup for the first time since the Mike Bossy era? (After surprising more than one, it feels foolish to question Trotz any longer.)
What if Mathew Barzal echoes William Nylander and becomes the rare RFA whose negotiations linger into the actual season? That feels unlikely, yet as of this writing, there isn’t a contract. Even with Barzal — or with Barzal for most of the season — the Islanders could find themselves in a tough spot. To reiterate, this team sometimes operates on a thin margin for error. Without Devon Toews, and with an altered goalie duo, they could struggle a bit more in their own end. For all we know, that balance could be thrown off violently enough to knock them out of the playoffs altogether. If the Islanders missed the playoffs, but also didn’t get any lottery luck, their outlook could start to look pretty dicey. For every prime-age player like Barzal, there are some veterans whose windows could start to close. Not making the most of 2020-21 could really sting.
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.