Our New York Islanders 2020-21 Preview is part of a one-a-day series covering the entire NHL. Click here for the rest of the teams in the leadup to another action-packed NHL season!
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The New York Islanders have found great success through a modern day iteration of trap-style hockey. They play a defense-first and low scoring game that prioritizes shutting down the opposition above all else. And, it has worked. After a breakout year in 2018-19, the Islanders continued to push forward with this system in 2019-20. For the most part, anyways. After a free fall month that saw them win just 2 of their last 13 games before the COVID-19 Pause, NYI broke out of this slump upon the resumption of the postseason in August, making it all the way to Game 6 of the Conference Finals before being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Due to the system they play, the Islanders typically punch above their weight class. On paper, they don’t have a roster that would suggest being able to compete with the likes of the Capitals, Lightning, and Maple Leafs, but they find a way. It’s the team-first mentality and focus on the defensive system that brings out that old saying “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” They may be boring in nearly every facet of the organization, but they are damn effective.
Unfortunately, the 2020 offseason may prove to be a detrimental one to the team. For starters, the organization missed a huge opportunity to have a cool Reverse Retro jersey and went with what was basically a rerelease.
In terms of the players, after suffering a scary eye injury back in March, Johnny Boychuk was pushed into retirement. The Islanders traded Devon Toews to the Avalanche. And the team didn’t bring anyone in to help fill those roster spots or anywhere else to improve the roster. On forward, some of the excellent depth this team has iced for a couple of seasons are still unsigned. Tom Kuhnhackl is still a UFA and Derick Brassard has signed in Arizona. They’ve finally convinced Ilya Sorokin to join the team, however.
The real hope is that the team’s system is strong enough to mitigate the losses of Boychuk and Toews on defense and the apparent hit to their forward depth. They’ve got precedent for being able to rebound after losing key pieces from John Tavares leaving the organization. We will have to see how a defensive-minded team responds to icing a weaker defensive lineup. They were already near the bottom of the league in possession numbers (3rd last in Corsi for %) and gave up the 5th most high danger chances in 2019-20. This is worrisome to ponder how much losing 2 of your top-6 defenders will further impact these numbers.
New York Islanders Roster Overview
This team is very below average offensively. Mathew Barzal is the main offensive catalyst and he’s put up 60 points the past couple of years. Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle, and Anthony Beauvillier round out the team’s primary offense, but they’re most often near the 40-50 point range and produce as second liners on this team.
Barzal is most often joined by Eberle and Lee, while Beauvillier and Nelson were either with Brassard or Bailey. The acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau at last season’s trade deadline helps provide some secondary scoring, as he should be able to contribute about 30 points over a full season. If Derick Brassard does not get brought back, this additional offense is more of a wash since it just covers what was lost in Brassard.
Beyond those players, the Islanders pose a minimal offensive threat. The top scorers after the ones already mentioned are Leo Komarov and Casey Cizikas who had 14 points apiece last season. Those bottom two lines may be ineffective offensively but at least they are physically engaging and find other ways to be productive. But for a team that already had trouble scoring and will likely face defensive difficulties in the upcoming year, they need to find more depth and secondary scoring to stay competitive.
I’ve already talked quite extensively about the losses to the defense due to how significant they seem to be. Boychuk may have only averaged 17 minutes a night (6th in defense for the Islanders), but his experience and gritty playstyle was a huge contribution to the style of play New York used to wear down opponents. Devon Toews was a fixture on the team’s second pairing, and with 28 points, was also the second leading defensive scorer.
Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech are undoubtedly the top pairing for the Islanders. Pulock is the more offensive, attacking type and should see increased powerplay time initially in Toews’ absence, which should help boost his team leading 35 points from the blueline.
Nick Leddy will likely be asked to fill Devon Toews’ skates as they play a similar style of game, the more free-flowing and offensively aggressive type. Also in Toews’ absence, Leddy will be given more powerplay time and a chance/expectation to boost his offensive numbers to where they once were. He has put up 40+ points in the past, but after 4 straight seasons of regressing numbers, he finished with 21 points in 2019-20. The Islanders need more from Nick Leddy offensively in the upcoming season.
The sure thing from New York’s defensive depth is that Noah Dobson will get a bigger role in the 2020-21 season. Placing Noah Dobson with a veteran presence like Andy Greene would be a great developmental pairing for Dobson. But they may also look at internal options like Thomas Hickey or Sebastian Aho.
To start the season, the team has made it clear that Semyon Varlamov is the starter. Due to how good Ilya Sorokin has been in the KHL, they’ll probably aim for a close split in games played to match the approximately 50 games Varlamov has played each of the last few seasons.
Due to the high number of and quality of scoring chances the Islanders seem poised to give up, it may not be the most stable position to be in with this organization. There may be a strong belief in the ‘riding the hot hand’ style of choosing a starter through the upcoming year.
New York Islanders 2020-21 Prediction
5th – 7th East Division
The Islanders didn’t do enough to get better, especially compared to the teams they are most closely competing against in this division. And the division they got placed in is not an easy one. Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the Rangers could all reasonably compete with or finish ahead of the Islanders, but if there is anything working in this team’s favour, it is that most of those teams also did not get any better over the offseason.
That concludes our New York Islanders 2020-21 Preview. Check to see if your team has been covered yet in our 2020-21 Season Preview Series.
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