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Season Recap: Islanders return to playoffs but early exit raises questions

May 2, 2023, 10:44 PM ET [406 Comments]
Ben Shelley
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The New York Islanders’ season wrapped up on Friday night, suffering a first round exit at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Despite being a goal away from erasing the 3-1 series deficit and pushing it to a Game 7, New York came up short. So before the team heads into the summer, we’ll take a look back at how the season played out.

Coming off their first playoff miss in four years, there was a lot of pressure on the team to get back to the postseason. They had just fired head coach Barry Trotz in a move that felt unwarranted, promoting Lane Lambert in his place.

That said, the roster was very similar to the season prior. Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene both retired, and the team brought in Alexander Romanov via trade to improve the left side of the defense group. But overall, it was a very similar team.

The first half of the year went about as expected, with the team hovering in and around the playoff picture, but not solidifying their spot. Then by the end of the calendar year and into January, the Islanders really started to slide and by the All-Star Break, it seemed as though there was pretty much no way we’d see the Islanders get back to the playoffs.

That’s when the team pulled off one of the biggest trades of the year, acquiring Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat. The center was in the midst of a monster year, scoring 31 goals and 54 points in just 49 games with the Canucks before the deal.

Surprisingly, things did take a turn from there. The Islanders ended up going 19-9-4 over their last 32 games of the year and against all odds, including being without Mathew Barzal for most of that stretch, they snuck into the postseason.

It wasn’t without missteps and frustration along the way, though. It seemed like for as well as the team played, as soon as they started making legitimate progress, they kept failing to capitalize on opportunities.

It continued right up until the second-last game of the regular season, where the Islanders came out flat against a non-playoff team, losing to the Washington Capitals in a game that should’ve sunk their season. However, the Pittsburgh Penguins made an even larger blunder, losing at home against an even worse team in the Chicago Blackhawks, allowing the Islanders to clinch a playoff spot in their final game of the season.

Again though, the Islanders made the postseason, which was the major goal. It seemed up in the air coming into the year, then progressively less likely throughout, so it was a major win.

Then in the playoffs, they got probably the best possible matchup. The Hurricanes were playing without two top forwards in Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty, then lost Teuvo Teravainen after Game 2. It was a team who couldn’t score much against another team who couldn’t score much.

However, the Islanders’ performances were inconsistent at times and they couldn’t put together complete games, on route to their elimination in Game 6. It kind of summed up a lot of the year for the team, in that we saw how good the team can look at their best, but they just couldn’t capitalize on opportunities.

The Islanders did get some great performances throughout the year, with Brock Nelson emerging as the team’s top skater for the season. He managed 36 goals and 75 points, marking the first time he’d eclipsed a points-per-82 pace of more than 70 points, and the second year in a row he hit 35 goals. Most players don’t put together their best years in their early 30s, but Nelson is clearly the exception.

Ilya Sorokin was great as expected, posting a .924 save percentage through 62 games, which was 10 games played more than last season as well. I also thought Alexander Romanov, while not perfect, was a solid addition and has the potential to be a really good long-term fit for the team.

Kyle Palmieri also put together a much better end to the year and was one of the team’s better forwards through 2023, while Pierre Engvall ended up being a good fit as a trade deadline addition.

At the end of the day though, this team still struggles to score in a huge way, ranking 22nd in the NHL in goals.

Adding Bo Horvat was an attempt to help this, but we’ll see what the long-term impact is. The center was underwhelming in his time with the Islanders and while Mathew Barzal was out for a significant stretch, Horvat wasn’t necessarily driving a line on his own. He managed just 16 points across 30 regular season games with the Islanders, then didn’t provide the impact needed in the postseason.

Anders Lee continues to run hot and cold at times offensively as well, while Oliver Wahlstrom got injured early on and Josh Bailey has declined to the point he’s not getting into the lineup. Hudson Fasching’s rise to full-time NHLer was a great story and well-deserved, but like so many other depth forwards on the team, he’s not going to provide the high-end offense the Islanders desperately need.

So now, the attention turns to the offseason.

The Islanders have some notable pending free agents, so we’ll wait and see who’s back. Scott Mayfield, Semyon Varlamov and Zach Parise are all unrestricted free agents, while Oliver Wahlstrom is the notable restricted free agent.

We already saw a move made, with Hudson Fasching being re-signed on Monday. The team extended Fasching on a two-year contract which carries a cap hit below $1 million, in a perfect depth signing. The team also inked forward Matthew Maggio to an entry-level contract.

But with limited cap space, it's up in the air where the team goes from here. Lou Lamoriello has put the team into a position where they basically have to be aiming to compete right now, given the lack of NHL-ready prospects.

But while the Islanders are competitive, they weren't contenders. It didn't feel like the same team who was able to make deep playoff runs in 2020 and 2021. I don’t think that changes without re-working the roster with more additions up front. After a year where the Islanders ended up getting back to the playoffs after all, it still feels like a disappointment.

Will the team go after another top forward? Will Josh Bailey be traded or bought out? Will current coaching and management remain in place? There are a lot of questions, both specific, and in a broader sense regarding the direction of the team.

We’ll see what’s next for the Islanders this summer.

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