NHL.com is examining where each team stands in preparation for the 2021-22 regular season, which starts Oct. 12. Today, five questions facing the New York Islanders:
1. Can they take the next step?
The Islanders were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2020 Eastern Conference Final in six games, then pushed the eventual back-to-back champions to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals last season. The bulk of the core is returning following the signings of center Casey Cizikas, a huge part of their identity for the past 10 seasons, and forward Kyle Palmieri, who was acquired in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on April 7. Palmieri scored seven goals in 19 Stanley Cup Playoff games last season. Cizikas and Palmieri became unrestricted free agents July 28, but each re-signed with New York on Sept. 1.
Forward Jordan Eberle, who scored 76 goals during his four seasons with New York, was selected by the Seattle Kraken at the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft on July 21.
2. What will Ilya Sorokin do for an encore?
The 26-year-old Russia-born goalie came as advertised last season, his first in North America. A third-round pick by the Islanders (No. 78) in the 2014 NHL Draft, Sorokin went 13-6-3 with a 2.17 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage and three shutouts in 22 regular-season games (21 starts), then made 48 saves to help New York to a 3-2 double-overtime win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup First Round at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It will be interesting to see how Sorokin performs now that the NHL is returning to an 82-game regular-season schedule, and how coach Barry Trotz will split the goalie duties between Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov, who tied Philipp Grubauer for the NHL lead last season with seven shutouts in 36 games (35 starts).
3. Who replaces Nick Leddy?
The defenseman was traded to the Detroit Red Wings for forward Richard Panik and a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft (forward Aatu Raty) on July 16. Leddy scored 31 points (two goals, 29 assists) and averaged 21:35 of ice time in 56 regular-season games and had six assists in 19 playoff games last season. The move comes after defenseman Devon Toews was traded to the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 12.
Leddy’s departure means a bigger role for 21-year-old defenseman Noah Dobson, who essentially replaced Toews last season and scored 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 46 regular-season games and had seven assists in 19 playoff games. But with no other defensemen acquired during the offseason, New York could turn to 25-year-old Sebastian Aho or 32-year-old veteran Thomas Hickey to fill out the group. Hickey played five games last season; Aho played three.
4. Do they have enough offense?
The Islanders returned to the third round of the playoffs last season, but they were shut out at the Lightning in Game 5 and again in Game 7. They played without forward Anders Lee; the Islanders captain scored 12 goals in 27 games before he sustained a season-ending knee injury March 11. Lee is expected to be ready for the start of training camp.
Oliver Wahlstrom did not look out of place as a rookie when called upon. The 21-year-old forward scored 21 points (12 goals, nine assists) in 44 regular-season games and three points (one goal, two assists) in five playoff games before he sustained a lower-body injury in Game 5 at Pittsburgh. With Eberle in Seattle, Wahlstrom is likely to receive a bigger role, particularly on the power play. Ten of his 21 points last season were scored with the man-advantage.
5. Where will they stand when UBS Arena opens?
The Islanders’ new arena in Elmont, New York, is near completion, but they won’t play their first game there until Nov. 20. When they begin this season Oct. 14 at the Carolina Hurricanes, it will be the first of 13 straight on the road.
There is no shortage of talent in the Metropolitan Division, and a strong start would bode well for New York’s hopes of returning to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.
“Training camp will be more important than ever as far as getting ourselves in shape,” general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “There will be less practice time certainly that period of time because of the amount of traveling that has to be done, almost like when you’re playing in the playoffs.”