What’s Up With the Islanders?

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On paper, this team should be close to the top of the standings. The Islanders have a generational talent in Barzal, an outstanding young player in Wahlstrom, and a goaltender whose last 4 seasons have been winning ones in Varlamov. Instead, Long Island sits near the bottom with the likes of Ottawa and Montreal. What gives?


Under Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders have had decent overall success. But it’s no secret that Trotz’s balanced approach has held certain players back. In his rookie season, Mathew Barzal averaged over a point per game, 85 points in 82 games. This was his only season without Trotz at the helm. He hasn’t had another season as successful since.

Trotz’s “no heroes” mentality could be what’s killing the Islanders this year, as it stifles the potential point-production. In the 19 games played, Barzal and Brock Nelson are tied for most points with only 11, an insanely low number for two players capable of more than 50 points per year. If the reins were looser, I guarantee you would see many more breakaway goals from Barzal and more gutsy plays from Nelson. I’d be willing to bet that Wahlstrom would be averaging much closer to a point per game, too.

But the forwards are only part of the equation.


I won’t say that the Islanders’ defense is completely ineffective, as 4 of them have at least 30 shots blocked. But there are plenty of areas that need to be improved upon. Starting with Mayfield, who is -12 on the season so far, has the second most PIMs on the team, and only 2 points. Don’t get it twisted, he’s not an offensive defenseman, but compared to last season, he won’t even get to half the number of points. Not to mention some boneheaded moves, like the knee-on-knee hit on Barkov a few weeks ago; accident or not, it wasn’t his smartest play and he’s lucky he didn’t get suspended.

Mayfield can’t be blamed for everything, though. Leading defensemen in points for Long Island is 22 year old Noah Dobson with 5. That’s pretty crazy when they have Pulock, who is a 30+ point per season player. In 12 games played, Pulock has 2 points. He is coming up on a $6.15mil contract next year. Averaging only 1 point every 6 games with just ‘okay’ defensive stats doesn’t justify that salary. Pulock needs to get his game back to where it was before the pandemic if the Islanders want to get back into the playoff race.


The last piece of the puzzle is a little more complicated. Goaltending often relies heavily on how well the guys in front of them play. Still, one would hope that goaltenders can step up to bail out their team when called upon. Ilya Sorokin seems to be, more or less, that kind of guy. His numbers are actually pretty good, considering the team’s current standing; 2.49 GAA and a .925 save percentage for a 5-6-4 record aren’t awful at all. Especially considering this is only his second year in the NHL, that’s pretty damn good, really.

In my eyes, the issue is with Varlamov. He’s a 14 year NHL veteran who hasn’t had a losing season since 2016-17 with Colorado. This year, he is 0-4-0 in his 4 starts with 16 goals against. That is unacceptable. He’s only 33, and given the fact that most goalies these days play until almost 40, age cannot be an excuse. His .881 save percentage ranks him at 63 out of 69 goalies* in the NHL right now (*with at least 3 games played). You can say that maybe the team in front of him had bad nights, but that save percentage is his and his alone.

Success in today’s NHL requires a team to have 2 solid goaltenders, if not a full-blown tandem system. Turning the ship around means Varlamov needs to get his mojo back, ASAP.

Final Thoughts

While COVID can be blamed for one or two bad games for the Islanders, their overall struggles are all their own. For some perspective, the Devils are currently 8 points ahead of them with only 3 more games played. There are no excuses; not COVID and not their long away game run (in fact, they’re much better away from home, as they haven’t won a home game yet).

There are so many missing pieces to their play from last year that they need to regain in order to be competitive again. The window to right the ship is closing quickly. Islanders fans better hope they figure it out soon.

Image courtesy of GettyImages via The Atlantic.

-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)

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