It should go without saying that every NHL team is hoping to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak, for obvious health reasons, and, from a pure hockey standpoint, to avoid scheduling difficulties or having to dress a depleted roster. But the Islanders had trouble avoiding long-term injuries last season with defenseman Adam Pelech, Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin all missing significant stretches. It nearly kept the Islanders from the postseason, and had the pandemic not halted the season, it’s questionable whether the Islanders would have qualified. The Islanders may not have the depth to overcome more of the same.
The next step
Coach Barry Trotz knows he’s never going to turn No. 1 center Mathew Barzal into a Selke Trophy candidate as a top defensive forward. Still, both Trotz and the 23-year-old Barzal, newly signed to a three-year, $21 million deal, know the gifted skater and playmaker can take his game to a higher, two-way level while becoming a more consistent goal scorer. The same is also true for second-line center Brock Nelson, who perhaps has shown the most improvement under Trotz’s tutelage, and Nelson’s left wing, Anthony Beauvillier, who seems poised for a breakout season after a brilliant postseason run. Overall, the Islanders need increased and more balanced scoring from their forwards.
Changing of the guard
The Islanders’ defensive depth took a hit with the trade of Devon Toews to the Avalanche because of salary cap concerns and Johnny Boychuk’s de facto retirement because of an eye injury. However, it will allow Noah Dobson, 21, the 12th overall pick in 2018, to blossom into a full-time role after Trotz deliberately brought him along slowly as a rookie, limiting him to 34 of the 68 games. Dobson is a skilled skater and stickhandler comfortable jumping into the attack. Trotz will pair him with wily veteran Andy Greene, the former Devils captain acquired late last season, and also use Dobson on the first power-play unit.
More power on the power play
It simply has to be better. The Islanders were 24th in the NHL last season at 17.3% (29-for-168) and 15th out of 24 postseason teams at 15.4% (12-for-78). That included going 2-for-19 (10.5%) in their six-game Eastern Conference final loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning. Barzal must limit the times he skates himself into traffic and off the puck, and the Islanders need to generate more blasts from the point that lead to rebound opportunities. Trotz will pair Dobson with hard-shooting defenseman Ryan Pulock on Barzal’s top unit, attempting to increase efficiency.
Living up to the hype
Ilya Sorokin, drafted in the third round in 2014, is finally an Islander. Now, all the highly touted Russian goalie prospect must do is live up to the ever-increasing expectations built up over his five highlight-worthy seasons in the KHL. Sorokin has the skills and athleticism but must show he can adapt his game to the smaller NHL rinks by tracking the puck through screens, learning the angles and limiting the rebound chances. The Islanders certainly believe he can, pairing him with Semyon Varlamov while allowing steady Thomas Greiss to leave via free agency.