With the NHL season just a week away, Islanders hockey continues to inch closer and closer. The bar has been raised from last season after the Isles got within two games of the Stanley Cup Finals.
So now it’s time to find out if this team is ready to take another step forward.
Our Rob Taub and James Nichols break down the many questions that will be answered during the 56-game sprint.
Q: Does Matt Martin’s four-year deal tell you there are more tricks up Lamoriello’s sleeve? Beauvillier, Pelech & Sorokin are due for contracts next season, and I have a hunch Lou still wants to somehow add a forward, how does this all fit?
Taub: I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to figure out how to solve Lou Lamoriello will just lead to a dead end. It’s hard to say about this latest deal with Martin whether he does have another move afoot. But never say never.
As for how all those crucial names will try to fit, I think we will have to wait till the offseason to answer that one, particularly with how the expansion draft plays out. That added dynamic could be a blessing in disguise for the organization.
Nichols: It’s true that Lamoriello has handed out some questionable contracts, but who am I to question the GM of the Year, better yet a Hall of Famer? The truth is Lamoriello works in mysterious ways and somehow finds a way to make things work. I do believe he still wants to add a forward to this group, all while keeping the core of this team together moving forward.
There are rumblings Thomas Hickey is being dangled out there again, which would relieve about $2.5 million off the cap. I’d have to think there is a plan in place to move contracts out with important players in Anthony Beauvillier, Ilya Sorokin, Adam Pelech, & Casey Cizikas due for contracts at seasons end. Candidates that could be moved in addition to Hickey: Cal Clutterbuck and Leo Komarov.
Q: Bode Wilde has made an impression on Trotz, and could be in the mix for the taxi squad. What kind of ceiling does he possess?
Taub: I think Wilde’s ceiling is a top-four. I remember talking to a scout about him around the time he was drafted and when he fell, he said the Islanders got a steal. His injury and not being able to participate in training camp last year hurt his stock a bit, but he’s still only 20 and just needs to get some pro experience under his belt.
If he’s able to grab one of the taxi squad spots, I think it would be beneficial for his development. So would playing a full season in Bridgeport which he never really got a chance to do last season as he only suited up in 20 games before being sent back to his junior club in Saginaw.
Nichols: Wilde has made an early impression at training camp, and has opened the eyes of head coach, Barry Trotz. He claimed that the 20-year old defenseman could be in the mix for a 7th defenseman, or taxi squad role. My gut tells me, however, that he will be in the AHL when their season begins in February.
A talent like Wilde, you want him on the ice every day to continue to grow his game. He has top-four puck-moving defenseman written all over him, a great development in what is seen as a missing thing in the Islanders’ prospect pool.
It’s not out of the question for Wilde to reach the potential of a top pairing defenseman.
Q: Every year the Isles seemingly are written off as a team who won’t be able to duplicate their previous success. Now minus Boychuk and Toews, do you see that as realistic?
Taub: I do. I think with the system they play and the evolution of this group over the past two years benefits them immensely. Those guys will be missed, but it’s not as if they lost a star defenseman as an example. Boychuk, for as much as he could, his body was breaking down year after year and was getting older in a league that has trended towards youth. Toews? He was solid during his tenure here but the cap and pandemic left him as a casualty.
Keep this in the back of your mind, a few of the teams in the East Division are now under new head coaches and putting new systems in place that might take them some time to get used to, even in a shortened regular season. So the Isles have a bit of an advantage in that department.
I think what also helps is the Isles now have two very talented youngsters who could really be difference makers, Noah Dobson and Ilya Sorokin. If those two kids can live up to the hype, the Islanders will be in great shape to make it three consecutive postseason appearances.
Nichols: This narrative again? Seriously, this happens every year. The charts and graphs have the Islanders slotted in the middle of the pack by years end. However, have we not learned in the past two seasons that charts and graphs don’t mean everything?
Boychuk and Toews are two guys who will be missed for obvious reasons. The good news is that during interviews in training camp, players have stated that Boychuk is still around. His presence alone is enough to keep morale high in the locker room. As for Toews, he had a down regular season in 2019-20, but turned it around in the bubble. But what does that matter? He’s in Colorado. It’s Dobson’s time now.
The 20-year old defenseman has succeeded across plenty of levels, and despite an awkward 2019-20 season, he has made major strides according to Trotz. Typically, we know Trotz likes to play his veterans, but the fact that he’s already confirmed Dobson will be a part of the top-six speaks volumes to me. We’ve consistently heard Dobson is a talent, and he’s ready for a significant boost in NHL minutes. I’m confident Trotz will have the blue line ready for puck drop.
Unfortunately, Lamoriello couldn’t snag that top-line forward we’ve all been craving. But the experience gained in the bubble for this forward group will be a major factor in the team’s success moving forward. With J.G. Pageau in the picture, the lineup has a certain stability it did not have in the 2019-20 season, giving Trotz the ability to roll four lines again, much like in 2018-19. Beauvillier is now considered a rising star, and the expectation is for him to take another step forward this season. This group has continued to succeed and trend in an upward direction. There is no reason to think that trend will not continue.
Q: Trotz typically plays his veterans over the kids. However, is this the season where that could change? We know Dobson will be an every night guy, but he’s also mentioned guys like Bellows, Wahlstrom and Wilde, and how they’ve impressed.
Taub: This is where things will get interesting. Isles fans have clamored for the kids to finally get there shot. Well now they just might.
With the condensed season, health and durability are going to be crucial. And frankly, the older guys on the team — this type of schedule could take its toll. So seeing the kids get a chance seems more likely than not.
I can tell you this though…if one of those young guys plays well and sticks to being defensively responsible like Trotz wants, it will add some big intrigue for roster decisions as the season progresses.
Nichols: It seems to me the third line slots that are available will be play by committee. We’ve continually seen Michael Dal Colle and Leo Komarov rolled out on this line. However, cap restrictions and taxi squad availability make this season a little different. It’s already been said in camp that if someone is underperforming, they can easily be replaced; even the veterans.
This could be the season where a rookie breaks onto the scene for the first time in a long time, so long as they perform to Trotz’ expectations.
Q: Speaking of Dobson, with Toews now in Colorado, can he play his way into PP1 minutes, and take over as the PP QB the Isles need?
Taub: I think there’s a very good chance that happens. Trotz noted earlier in the week that Dobson is poised to play a significant role this season. That could mean the power play, which for how inconsistent it has been for years now, needs a facilitator and at times a shooter.
Dobson seems like he can become that guy. He took on the same role in juniors and showed last year he wasn’t afraid to get in on the offense. His shot is also sneaky good. Another thing to think about if he is handed quarterback duties on the man-advantage.
Nichols: Rob said it best. Dobson has been in that role before, and his style of play fits the mold. It’s possible he could play his way into PP1 minutes, but my gut says it’s more likely in 2020-21.
It’s possible that in a shortened season, anyone’s leash on the powerplay might be short. Two things can be true though, and I’m not sure 56 games is enough time for Dobson to play his way into top PP minutes. For me, it’s more likely for the following season but I won’t rule anything out due to how bad the Islanders power play normally is.
Q: We all know the Islanders are a team that must have everyone pulling the rope to attain success. But who’s the one player that needs to have a huge year more than the rest?
Taub: To me it’s Jordan Eberle. He had such a disappointing postseason — even with his wonderful OT winner in game five against Tampa — and his regular season wasn’t home to write about either. I cut him a lot of slack because he got hurt ten games in the previous year, but his consistency hasn’t been what many had hoped for. That has to change in 2021.
This is now year four for him in the organization and he needs to be that goal-scorer again like he was when he first arrived from Edmonton. The possibility of him being exposed in the expansion draft also should be another motivating factor for him to put everything into this season.
Nichols: For me, it’s Anthony Beauvillier. We saw what he is capable of, and we know he can be fantastic in short stretches. It’s time that Beau showed more consistency though.
As I said earlier, many have him slated now as a rising star. His nine goals in 22 playoff games converts to about 33 goals over 82 games.
The Islanders desperately need a 30-goal scorer, as they’ve been without one since 2017-18, when Anders Lee scored 40 and John Tavares scored 37.
Q: Player who will come out of nowhere and have a great season? Reason for your choice.
Taub: Scott Mayfield seems like a guy who could really surprise this season. He had his moments in the Isles’ run to the Conference Finals and continues to be a durable and reliable presence on the blue line.
Now that his usual d-partner — Devon Toews — is no longer with the team, Mayfield has a chance to step up and show what he’s really made of.
Nichols: This is less an out of nowhere and more of a bounce back take. Eberle is my guy to bounce back this season. He actually played well in the bubble but just had an unfortunate streak of bad luck. His chemistry with Barzal is obvious and if he can refrain from gripping the stick too tight, I don’t see why he can’t score 25 goals in 56 games.
Q: What are the realistic expectations for J.G. Pageau? Do we get an even more explosive version of him than we did in the bubble?
Taub: I think 30-35 points would quantify as an excellent season for the Ottawa native. Projected to be the third-line center, it’d be easy to think his point production won’t be as high as it might be if this was a full 82-game season. But 35 points in 56 games would be wonderful for any Islander forward in their bottom-six.
And yes — now that he’s comfortable with his surroundings and the system Trotz employs — Pageau will have that “balls to the wall” mentality every night.
Nichols: 30-35 points is fair. I don’t foresee a holdout for too much longer. But if Barzal happens to not make it to the regular season, 40-45 points could be in the cards.
Q: The power play has been on and off for years now. Is this finally the year it becomes a significant advantage and how so?
Taub: Being brutally honest, it has to be. It will all depend on who is running it and a player like Beauvillier or Pageau possibly becoming the shooter.
Nichols: It does have to be. With not much change to personnel and no true sniper, it’s hard to imagine it’ll be much better this season.
Q: I’ve advocated that Brock Nelson can score 30 goals this year. Realistic or unrealistic, and why?
Taub: 30 goals in 56 games will be a difficult task, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. Nelson is the Isles’ most prominent goal-scoring threat and that plateau, he’s come close to that already multiple times in his career.
Nichols: Nelson was on his way to his first 30-goal season before the pandemic cut things short. He’s been the Islanders most consistent scorer the past two seasons. 30 goals might be tough in 56 games, but it’s not unrealistic. I will say I expect a 30-goal pace that would translate to an 82 game season.
BONUS Q: How confident are you the Islanders can win the East Division and why do you feel that way?
Taub: I think they have just as good a chance to win it as many of their division rivals. Reason being, they aren’t as bad as some of the experts are making them out to be with some of the players they lost in the offseason. As I said earlier, several of the teams in this newly-formed division are under new coaching and might take some time to adjust to new styles of play. Also, they’ve had some extra success against their division foes the last few years and seem to match up well with the kind of games those other teams play.
Nichols: I have a feeling the Islanders will look more like they did in 2018-19, where they finished second in the Metro with 103 points. Much of the now “MassMutual” East Division teams haven’t made major improvements to their roster either, so claiming the East Division is certainly a possibility. I’d say I’m fairly confident they can do so, especially with Trotz behind the bench.
BONUS Q: The Islanders have long struggled with the Bruins. Now in the same division, can they keep up with Boston? Why or why not?
Taub: It will be a tall task because even with all the departures and injuries, the Bruins are still the Bruins. They are built to win and can overcome setbacks probably better than any team in the league. But if the Isles can go without any type of long losing streaks, I think they have a shot to be right there with them from start to finish.
Nichols: No Chara, No Krug, and David Pastrnak starting the year injured. The Bruins are always tough, but this could be the year they finally keep pace.