The 2021-22 season did not go anywhere near as planned for the New York Islanders.
After back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Islanders entered the season with sky-high expectations, and reasonably so. They had a top head coach, two outstanding goalies, and a team that had shown it could win in the playoffs.
But everything that could have possibly gone wrong during the season did go wrong.
They started the season with a 13-game road trip while their new arena was completed. That road trip coincided with COVID and injury issues that absolutely decimated their roster. The end result was an 11-game losing streak that was part of a 5-10-5 start to the regular season. It put them in a hole that was pretty much impossible to climb out of in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
Once their roster returned to normal and they actually had a chance to play some games at home, they finished the year with a much stronger record and at least a little bit closer to what should have been expected. But it still wasn’t quite good enough to get them closer than 16 points to a playoff spot. And even when looking at their final 62 games, where they went 32-27-5, that would still only be a 92-point pace over an 82-game season. That is still not at a playoff level.
That resulted in a pretty stunning head coach change that saw Barry Trotz get fired and replaced by Lane Lambert.
[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]
But the roster, for the most part, remains the same as we get go through the first week of free agency. The only major chance to this point has been trading the No. 13 overall pick in a three-team trade with Montreal and Chicago that saw the Islanders acquire Alexander Romanov. He is young and has potential and has shown flashes of ability in the NHL, but he remains a total wild card.
The Islanders should still be strong on the back end. They still have the goalies (Ilya Sorokin in particular is emerging as one of the NHL’s elite at the position) but they are desperate for offense and quickly running out of options to upgrade it as most of the top candidates have already moved.
Kevin Fiala went to Los Angeles. Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux went to Ottawa. Filip Forsberg stayed in Nashville while Evgeni Malkin remained in Pittsburgh. Vincent Trocheck signed with the Islanders’ top rivals in across the city. Andrew Copp and David Perron went to Detroit. Max Pacioretty went to Carolina for, quite literally, nothing. And Johnny Gaudreau? The player considered to be the best option? He chose Columbus. Even New Jersey managed to add Ondrej Palat.
In the short-term, it is concerning because the Islanders were already behind at least eight other teams in the Eastern Conference (including four in their own division) while several other non-playoff teams have made noticeable improvements (Detroit, Columbus).
They are quickly running out of time to find their own improvements.
Other than that, the options are already slim unless Lamoriello really pulls something out of nowhere.
Given the lack of options, it is difficult to see how the Islanders make up that ground to get back to the playoffs with what is essentially the same roster.
The long-term concern is that the Islanders are on a ticking clock with core players like Mathew Barzal and Sorokin.
Barzal is in the final year of his current bridge contract, and is one year away from potential unrestricted free agency.
Sorokin will be an unrestricted free agent at the same time. They already have 10 players on the roster over the age of 30, and several more that are quickly closing in on that number. And outside of Barzal and Sorkin, there is not really a difference-maker on the roster. There are a lot of really good players, and a handful of very good players. But nobody else that is going to keep an opposing coach awake at night going into a matchup.
If the goal is to get back to the playoffs and compete this season around Barzal and Sorokin, they really needed somebody like a Gaudreau, or a DeBrincat, or even a Pacioretty this offseason. They missed the boat on all of them. Now it looks like they are headed for a couple of years of hockey purgatory over the next couple of years.
Lamoriello’s career resume speaks for itself. He built a dynasty in New Jersey and deserves all of the credit in the world for that. But that was pre-salary cap days in the league, and his teams have struggled to maintain sustained success over several years in the cap era. And despite winning back-to-back GM of the year awards there have been some questionable moves the past few years (investing so much in the fourth line; trading Devon Toews for two second-round draft picks; missing out on everybody this offseason).
It has left the Islanders in a state of mediocrity and it is tough to see a short-term path for exiting it.