The seventh-seeded Islanders are slated to face the 10th-seeded Florida Panthers in a best-of-five series to qualify for the NHL’s 16-team playoff under the league’s return-to-play format.
Here are five questions facing the Islanders if they are able to resume games:
1. Can they regain their winning touch?
The Islanders, like every other NHL team, will be back to full health when they reassemble. That includes top-pair defenseman Adam Pelech (Achilles’ tendon), out since Jan. 2, as well as center Casey Cizikas (leg laceration), sidelined on Feb. 11, and defenseman Johnny Boychuk (left eye laceration), who missed the team’s last three games. But good teams overcome injuries and the Islanders played inconsistent hockey since Thanksgiving. A team-record 15-0-2 streak left them 16-3-2 on Nov. 23 but they went 19-20-8 the rest of the way and were on an 0-3-4 skid when the season was halted. Everything needs to be better, from goalies Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss on out. Coach Barry Trotz told Newsday in April he may have “overcoached” and perhaps the Islanders should have tried to play an even tighter defensive game rather than trying to force offense.
2. Will a healthy fourth line be key?
Trotz relies on the Cizikas-centered fourth line with wings Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck as identity setters for the rest of the team. But the trio was only together for 19 of the Islanders’ 68 games as Cizikas was absent after Feb. 11, in addition to being sidelined for five games in October. Clutterbuck was out from Dec. 21 to Feb. 27 when he was slashed on the left wrist by a skate blade. Martin was out from Oct. 27 to Nov. 19 with a leg injury. Having this trio intact allows Trotz to most effectively roll four lines while bringing better balance to the rest of his lineup.
3. Will Jean-Gabriel Pageau benefit from the break?
Lamoriello acquired Pageau from the Ottawa Senators at the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 24 and promptly signed him to a six-year, $30 million extension. It was supposed to give Trotz the stability he had sought all season from a third-line center. And Pageau started well, with goals in each of his first two games with the Islanders. But, likely pressing, he went without a point over the next five games, and the Islanders did not win any of the seven games he played in after the trade. Perhaps going through a training period with the Islanders before games are resumed will offer Pageau a level of comfort.
4. Can the top line lead the way?
As much as Trotz relies on rolling four lines to provide scoring balance, No. 1 center Mathew Barzal (19 goals, 41 assists), captain Anders Lee (20 goals, 23 assists) and right wing Jordan Eberle (16 goals, 24 assists) is his best scoring trio. Sluggish scoring out of the restart likely will doom the Islanders, who would have little time in a best-of-five qualifying series to work through their offensive struggles. Those three also are crucial to the Islanders’ power play, which must produce more consistently for the Islanders’ season to extend more than just a few games. The Islanders’ man advantage finished the regular season 24th in a 31-team league at 17.3% (29-for-168).
5. What will the roster look like and will it include goalie Ilya Sorokin?
The AHL canceled the rest of its season, so the Islanders will be able to add any players they want from their top minor-league affiliate in Bridgeport. That could include forwards Kieffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom, Tanner Fritz, Cole Bardreau and Simon Holmstrom and defenseman Sebastian Aho and Parker Wotherspoon. But it’s not likely to include Sorokin, the organization’s top goalie prospect who is looking to come to North American after playing out his KHL contract. “Our position, and this is something we’re going to have to ultimately resolve with the NHL Players’ Association … is no club is entitled to sign a current-year contract," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "They are free to sign future-year contracts, so for the 2020-21 season and beyond.”