Was 2021-22 just a hiccup for Islanders, or did their window close?

Was 2021-22 just a hiccup for Islanders, or did their window close?
David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how surprising was that fall? Are there signs that things might go right next season? This series tackles those questions, and more. In the latest edition of “What Went Wrong?,” PHT breaks down the 2021-22 New York Islanders.

When it was abundantly clear that the 2021-22 Islanders wouldn’t make the playoffs, Barry Trotz hammered home the point that there were “no excuses.”

Yet, if the Islanders want to put a positive spin on this failed 2021-22 season, wouldn’t it be best to write off worries by blaming, say, a 13-game season-opening road trip? One person’s “excuse” is another person’s reason.

Ultimately, it’s crucial for the Islanders to assess their failed 2021-22 season properly. Was this a hiccup, or did the window close on an act with a small margin for error?

2021-22 Islanders’ larger failures (and bad luck?) hides elite season from Sorokin

If there’s one thing that snuck under the radar about the 2021-22 Islanders, it was how impressive their goaltending was.

Look at the Goals Saved Above Average ranks, and Igor Shesterkin‘s historic 44.85 leads all goalies, but Ilya Sorokin was second with an outstanding 29.8. There’s a very valid argument that Ilya Sorokin (26-18-8, .925 save percentage, .712 quality start %) should finish as a 2022 Vezina Trophy finalist.

While Semyon Varlamov wasn’t as dominant, he also generated a positive GSAA (4.65).

Although stats like GSAA attempt to account for the defenses and structures in front of them, you might surmise that Barry Trotz’s schemes boost the numbers of his goalies. That’s probably true.

But it’s reasonable to wonder if the Islanders will enjoy the same elite goaltending next season after tremendous work in 2021-22. Conceivably, they could see a drop-off there while cleaning up more messes than usual on defense.

Look at a variety of defensive metrics, and you’ll note that this team wasn’t locking down opponents to the same degree. This Hockey Viz heat map captures some of the story. This wasn’t about allowing a ton of volume, but protecting the high-danger areas. Instead, the Islanders bled chances from the high-priced real estate in 2021-22:

Like others, I’d assume that Trotz & Co. will tighten some or all of these issues up next season. If not, things could stay ugly.

2021-22 Islanders season: fluke or sign of things to come?
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Islanders face key offseason questions

Heading into the offseason, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are, however, some important questions to answer.

Add to some strengths on defense and in net?

There’s a solid chance that the Islanders unearthed a real find in Sorokin, who’s merely 26, and who carries an appealing $4M cap hit through 2023-24.

They’ll need to hash out an RFA deal with rising 22-year-old defenseman Noah Dobson. Once they do that, the Islanders can find some comfort in their “trident” of Dobson and a strong pairing of 27-year-old defensemen in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock.

Beyond re-signing Dobson, the Islanders’ offseason questions begin to form around the rest of that defense. Aging blueliners Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene are UFAs, and retirement is a strong possibility for one or both. Aside from Scott Mayfield, the Islanders lack much in the way of clear depth defensemen. They’ll need to decide if prospects can fill the void; if not, trades and free agency will need to do the trick.

Cap Friendly estimates that the Islanders will have about $12.26M in cap space, with 18 roster spots covered. After a 13-goal, 51-point season, Dobson figures to eat up a healthy portion of that room.

If there’s an urge to create more space, would the Islanders try to trade Semyon Varlamov, a 34-year-old whose $5M cap hit expires after next season? (Not an outrageous question to ask if you think Barry Trotz can prop up a cheaper goalie.)

How much is left is in the tank for veteran forwards; Will they extend Barzal, and find him some help?

Offensively, it’s difficult to imagine the Islanders hanging with the rising tide of NHL scoring juggernauts.

Really, the hope is likely just that an old-but-not-ancient group doesn’t get too creaky.

All of those questions are interesting, but the most interesting forward-related question for the Islanders revolves around Mathew Barzal. In 2022-23, Barzal carries a team-friendly $7M cap hit, setting him up for restricted free agency (with arbitration rights).

Do the Islanders believe they can extend Barzal at an affordable clip? Would that be better than waiting out a contract year?

Also, can they find Barzal some help in free agency? You’d think it would be almost certain that he’d put up bigger numbers (59 points in 73 games) if he had more help. To say nothing of the daydream of Barzal in a more dynamic offensive system.

Replenish for the future, or keep selling for today?

During previous trade deadlines, the Islanders traded away significant draft capital (and allotted substantial cap space) to land Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Kyle Palmieri.

Though debatable in terms of sheer value, those moves were understandable: the Islanders were going for it.

Then comes the bill. From at least two pundits’ perspectives, the Islanders farm system only ranks ahead of the nascent Seattle Kraken prospect pool.

The full context of the Islanders’ situation presents a conundrum. Do you try to rebuild that prospect pool by making a better-than-usual draft pick, or do you explore packaging that pick to try to improve for the present?

The logic of possibly going for it extends beyond the aging elements of the Islanders’ core (not to mention 59-year-old Trotz and 79-year-old Lamoriello). It’s unclear how much Sorokin will cost after 2023-24, but the Isles have a chance to take advantage of two more seasons of an elite goalie at $4M per year. With that in mind, this may represent their last great window to contend under this current setup.

Naturally, that’s assuming that the 2021-22 season was a mere blip, and not a sign that the Islanders may no longer have the stuff to be elite defensively.

Overall, there are signs pointing both ways, including the mantra of “At this point do you really want to doubt Trotz?” Of the teams who missed the playoffs, the Islanders may face some of the most daunting long-term challenges, but they rank alongside the Golden Knights as teams most likely to rebound back to the postseason. They may even be Stanley Cup contenders again.

Or maybe their window already closed.

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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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.


    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”


    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.