An already very competitive Eastern Conference seemed to get even more dangerous this offseason, with quite a few teams bulking up via trades and free agency.
In the Metropolitan Division alone, the Carolina Hurricanes managed to improve yet again with the additions of Dmitry Orlov and Michael Bunting, while the New Jersey Devils were able to extend top forwards on long-term deals, despite a cap crunch. Then with Kyle Dubas taking over in Pittsburgh, the Penguins made a massive addition in acquiring Erik Karlsson to set themselves up for a couple final runs with their current core, and even the likes of the Columbus Blue Jackets greatly improved their blue line.
The New York Islanders, on the other hand, remained fairly quiet. They managed to offload Josh Bailey and re-sign their pending free agents, but there were no significant additions.
While the team squeaked into the playoffs last year, I think the end to the season still left a lot of uncertainty as to how competitive this team really is. The Islanders only really reached the postseason following some huge late-season fumbles from other teams, before bowing out against a depleted (though still strong) Carolina Hurricanes.
So the question is, what’s next?
The Islanders are in a spot where their roster is set-up to compete now, based on the age of a lot of their core players. The majority of their top talent is in their mid-to-late 20s, or early 30s. With limited prospects and young talent, it’s not really like they're set up for a wave of other players to take a step.
What continued to lack yet again for the team last season was goal scoring. The hope was Bo Horvat could be a difference-maker following the trade deadline, but that really wasn’t the case. We also know the Islanders got where they did last year while Ilya Sorokin was playing at the top of his game. He’s the kind of goalie who can likely repeat that success, but this is to say that while the Islanders may be good enough for goaltending (and a strong defensive unit) to get them to the postseason, more offense remains the biggest key in the team contending again.
So with major additions to the forward group unlikely at this point, the Islanders will have no choice but to lean on internal improvement to see some progress next season.
The spotlight will shine brightest on Bo Horvat. The center’s time with New York after being acquired was underwhelming and especially while Mathew Barzal was out of action, Horvat really had a hard time generating offense in his absence. He posted just seven goals and 16 points in 30 regular season games with the team, and it wasn’t a case of bad puck luck. At times, it felt like Horvat was a little invisible, or at least certainly wasn’t providing the impact or carrying play like the team would’ve hoped for.
We’ve seen what Horvat is able to do at his best. Before being acquired by the Islanders, he was putting together an elite-level year with the Vancouver Canucks, scoring 31 goals and 54 points in 49 games. While he’s not going to reach those numbers again, the hope is that pairing him with Barzal long-term is going to work out. A realistic hope would be to see Horvat up around 30 goals and 60-plus points.
The other x-factor for the team is Oliver Wahlstrom. An 11th overall pick in 2018, Wahlstrom has been fine, but we know he has a higher ceiling. The obvious asset is hit shot, but it’ll be key to see him round out his game a little more in the coming year. At 23 years old, there’s still a bit of time for him to emerge as a legitimate top-six forward, and while it may not be ‘make-or-break’ quite yet for the winger, we’re creeping up to that point.
Simon Holmstrom is another forward who could take a step, and of course, it’s always possible for any player on the team to be a difference-maker. Just look at Brock Nelson, who put together the best season of his career at 31 years old. But Horvat and Wahlstrom seem to be the two players that could really help the team on the scoring front.
Aside from another major addition though, or major improvement from current roster players, it’s difficult to see the Islanders as a legitimate contender. Looking at their roster against the likes of divisional opponents in the Carolina Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils, and there’s just a clear skill gap, mainly up front.
It seems likely the team finds themselves in a similar position to last year: in a group of about six or seven other teams who are all battling it out for the final few playoff spots. It’s arguably not a great position to be in, with the organization not really in a position to contend, but also not necessarily being able to do a ton about it.
That said, what I would point to is the fact that if the Islanders play this correctly, they could end up building a fairly good roster a couple years down the line. The majority of their top players are already under contract for years to come. Ilya Sorokin, Mathew Barzal, Bo Horvat, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield, and Pierre Engvall are all locked up at decent prices until around 2030. So long as each player is able to prevent a decline for the foreseeable future, the cap will continue to rise, and the team will gain more flexibility to build onto their current core.
Hopefully this is the plan, and while the team knows they can’t necessarily put together a contending roster for the upcoming season, if they can steer clear of poor cap management in the next year or two, they’re going to find themselves in a position to make significant roster upgrades down the line.
But for the time being at least, we can probably only expect to see the Islanders competing for a playoff spot yet again, rather than joining the list of teams who’ve set themselves up as true contenders. They could maybe find their way to a Metropolitan Division spot if everything goes perfectly, but competing for a wildcard spot once again seems like the more likely scenario.
So we’ll see how things play out. There are worse spots to be in, and obviously, if a team can get into the playoffs, anything can happen – though I’d argue the early exit last season is a hit to the ‘built for the playoffs’ tag that seems to surround this group from their previous Conference Final appearances.
The team really didn’t improve this offseason (or at least hasn’t yet), focusing more on retaining its current pieces. That’s not necessarily what you want to see, considering the Conference includes about 13 teams who have a realistic shot at the eight postseason slots.
But the roster remains strong enough to compete and while they won’t have an easy time given the strength of the Conference, with a healthy group, improvement from the likes of Horvat, and continued excellence from Sorokin, the Islanders could still be dangerous.