NHL on NBCSN: Should Islanders be worried about recent struggles?

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders. Bruins-Islanders coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

While the Bruins have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams since the trade deadline, the Islanders have been sputtering since April 11.

Maybe chalk it up to Anders Lee simply being a player who’s difficult to replace. Or perhaps boil it down to the challenges of fitting Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac into a puzzle. As seamlessly as Taylor Hall is fitting in with the Bruins, plenty of teams struggle to acclimate players post-trade-deadline.

Really, the Islanders might simply need the more direct urgency of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, rather than the all-gravy greed of merely trying to improve seeding.

Unlike Bruins, Islanders struggling after trade deadline

Wherever you assign blame, the Islanders haven’t been sharp since April 11.

Keep the stats simple — as Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello seem to prefer — or dig into “fancy stats.” Either way, things don’t look so great for the Islanders lately.

  • The Islanders sport a middling 6-6-2 record since the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. Losing to the Bruins and Capitals is one thing — although even that is notable since the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs are near. But dropping games to the Sabres and Devils? That’s not ideal.
  • Both Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri haven’t found any real rhythm with the Islanders.

You’d think that it would be more worrisome that Palmieri’s been struggling with the Islanders post-deadline. However, Lamoriello and Trotz do things their way, and it’s fair to wonder if landing Zajac’s encouraged some bad habits.

At times, Zajac’s simply been given too prominent a role for a limited player at the age of 35. He’s actually averaging more ice time per game than Palmieri, as well as promising young forward Oliver Wahlstrom.

Perhaps some of that comes down to a fixation on faceoffs? During earlier struggles, The Athletic’s Arthur Staple noted that Mathew Barzal‘s been occasionally moved off center, sometimes for Zajac (who’s won just under 60% of his draws since joining the Islanders).

Yes, it’s nice to gain that early possession, but it only counts for so much if you can’t really do anything after winning a faceoff.

As much as Palmieri’s struggled, it’s perplexing that Zajac’s received about three times as much even-strength ice time with Barzal so far.

[BRUINS-ISLANDERS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Resting Barzal might be a blessing in disguise. Still, sitting the star center raised some eyebrows.

The deeper “analytics” don’t paint a great picture, either.

Since spending big at the trade deadline for Palmieri and Zajac, the Islanders have been mediocre in expected goals and similar stats, and even worse when it comes to high-danger chances.

Reasons to worry, reasons to relax

After years of overcoming red flags, Islanders fans might shrug their shoulders at certain worries. That’s understandable, although it’s worth noting that the Islanders were starting to look more credible by certain advanced stats between their impressive 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs run, and a decent chunk of the 2020-21 season.

If there’s one reason not to totally dismiss this recent swoon, it might be in how seeding my hurt the Islanders.

At home, the Islanders managed a 21-4-3 record. On the road, however, the Isles are just 11-13-3.

Maybe that’s just a coincidence; this is a strange season full of disruptions and challenges, after all. But perhaps the mix of the spirit of home-ice advantage and the granular actual advantages (faceoff edge, last change) really made a difference for the sometimes small-margin-of-error Islanders.

At least one thing’s remained pretty constant, though: goaltending.

Semyon Varlamov‘s been tremendous with a .930 save percentage this season, and Ilya Sorokin‘s served as one of the NHL’s best Plan B options (.918).

Mix the Islanders system with keyed-in goalies, and they can easily go on another tear. After all, the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline addition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau looked a lot better during that postseason than it did during the regular season.

Ideally, the Islanders would be riding high going into the postseason, much like the Bruins. Maybe they can end the regular season on a high note, then?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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