The Islanders have become one of the best teams in hockey after watching their captain and seemingly their franchise pillar John Tavares depart for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency prior to the 2018-19 season.
After a top-three finish in the Metropolitan Division that season followed by a second-round postseason exit, the 2019-20 campaign didn’t go as smoothly.
That said, it can be argued that no team benefited more from the NHL’s hiatus than the Isles. They were in a free-fall down the stretch of the regular-season, uncharacteristically being scored upon at will and had lost seven in a row before the league went on pause in mid-March.
With many writing them off upon the return to play, the Islanders took out the Florida Panthers in four games in the qualifying round and subsequently disposed of the Washington Capitals in just five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinal. They weren’t done there, however, as the Islanders took down the favored Philadelphia Flyers in seven games to march their way to the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s when the season came to a half in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champs, but the Isles certainly put their mark back on the league as a team to be feared moving forward.
It’s a team to be feared, but it’s also quite a similar team to the one that surprised their way to the final four a season ago.
With that being said, let’s dive into the 2020-21 New York Islanders and their season outlook and odds before looking into some predictions on how this season should shake out for the club moving forward.
*Odds courtesy of MyBookie
**Salary cap figures courtesy of CapFriendly
***Advanced metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
2020-21 New York Islanders Season Preview & Odds
- Last Season: 35-23-10 (5th in Metropolitan Division)
- Key Additions: G Ilya Sorokin
- Projected Salary Cap Space: $3,905,833
- 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +2700
- 2021 Eastern Conference Odds: +1400
The team is built – or at least structured – in a defense-first nature which has come at the expense of scoring goals, as it usually does. Teams such as the Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars are cut from a similar cloth as low-scoring clubs that don’t give up much in their own end.
That’s not to be confused with the Islanders probably wanting to generate more offense next season. Last season, they ranked 22nd with 2.78 goals per game but also struggled mightily to score on the road where they averaged just 2.33 goals per game to share 27th place with the anemic offense of the Los Angeles Kings.
Their home offense was far superior, but when the team was spiralling, it was in large part due to their inability to generate much, if any offense at all outside of Long Island, or Brooklyn. The end results is probably what means the most, but some type of consistency works far better throughout a long season.
The team will also look to improve a power play that ranked 24th with a 17.3% clip on the season, sitting around clubs such as the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, two of the worst teams in hockey last season.
As noted, much of the same cast remains up front. In fact, all of it does if the team can agree to terms with restricted free agent Mathew Barzal before a potential offer sheet makes its way in.
Barzal, bar-none the team’s top offensive player and one of the most skilled players in the league, will be looking for a handsome sum after leading the team in scoring in each of the last three seasons, including a rookie season in which he busted out with 85 points while skating in all 8n2 games.
Since the beginning of the 2017-18 season, Barzal’s first season in the league after a two-game cup of coffee in the prior campaign, Barzal’s 207 points ranks him 33rd in the league. On a per-game basis his production dipped over the last two seasons, however that production puts him alongside the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov, a fellow center who signed for $7.8M on an eight-year deal prior to the 2017 season.
Of course, times have changed and the asking prices continue to rise, making it difficult on teams looking to keep star RFA players in the mix in a flat-cap era. His production also puts him in company with Tyler Seguin, Sean Couturier, Ryan O’Reilly and Nicklas Backstrom among centers. At just 23, Barzal has age and upside as leverage in discussions, and the Islanders don’t have nearly enough cap space at the moment. Stay tuned.
This shootout goal by Mat Barzal is worth watching again and again and again.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 16, 2018
Odds are Barzal returns to the Island, and when he does so he will anchor the offense once again on the top line alongside captain Anders Lee and veteran winger Jordan Eberle. The team will also look to get some production from a pair of youngsters likely in for full-time NHL roles next season in Kiefer Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom, two high-end prospects who produced decent AHL numbers last season but didn’t fare nearly as well in brief NHL time with Wahlstrom going pointless in nine games.
The team could also use fellow young, inexperience players in Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang assuming Bellows and Wahlstrom aren’t up to the challenge early on.
Regardless of how you slice it, the salary cap issue currently facing the team is going to thrust young, entry-level contracts into the lineup and the team’s offense will largely depend on Barzal and the top six once again as a result.
The Islanders earn their keep on the back end despite their struggles prior to the NHL’s pause in March.
Even with the late defensive regression, the Islanders finished the season ranked ninth with 2.79 goals against per game while sporting a middle-of-the-pack penalty kill that sat 15th at 80.7%.
The advanced metrics tell a different story, however.
Despite sporting a top-10 defense, the Islanders ranked 24th in terms of scoring chances against and 27th when it came to high-danger chances against. They consistently lost the scoring chance battle with a 47.91% Scoring Chances For% and while they were over 50% in the high-danger department, those numbers don’t spell out a ninth-ranked defense, at all.
They also ranked 21st with a -1.6 average shot differential last season, for what it’s worth.
Nonetheless, the team managed to keep the puck out of the net on a mostly-consistent basis last season and will return much of that same defensive group the blueline this season.
Adam Pelech, Nick Leddy, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield, Johnny Boychuk and Noah Dobson are the projected top-six on Long Island this season, but one notable omission from that group is Devon Toews.
— MSG Networks (@MSGNetworks) February 17, 2019
The 26-year-old Toews was also an RFA this offseason in need of a new deal, and while he got that new deal, it was with the Colorado Avalanche after they traded for his rights this offseason. In other words, Toews became a cap casualty after posting a solid six goals and 28 points in just his second season in the league with a long history of producing at the AHL and collegiate levels.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for Islanders fans with the likes of Andrew Ladd and Boychuk combining to eat $11.5M of the team’s salary cap not only for this season, but for next season as well while Ladd has a third year on the books. The team also has RFA negotiations to look forward to next offseason with the likes of Anthony Beauvillier, Dal Colle and Pelech in need of new deals a year from now.
The salary cap situation is quite messy at the moment, and losing Toews feels like a major loss as a result, but the on-ice defensive product continued to churn out quality results last season.
The Islanders lost netminder Thomas Greiss on the open market to the Red Wings, but did so know the goaltender of the future would be coming on board in the form of Ilya Sorokin.
Sorokin, 25, has posted super-elite numbers for CSKA Moscow of the KHL since a six-game stint with the team in the 2014-15 season. Sorokin has posted a goals-against average between 1.06 and 1.61 in each of the last six season in a CSKA jersey while his save percentages have ranged from .929 to .953 in that time. In 40 contests last season, Sorokin posted 1.50 GAA and .935 Sv%, but his career-best season has been his 2015-16 campaign in which he turned in a 1.06 GAA and .953 Sv% in 28 games at the ripe old age of 20 years old.
If Sorokin is the goaltender of the future, signing veteran Semyon Varlamov to a four-year deal worth $5M annually doesn’t seem like the best use of cap space, either. While there’s no guarantees of success with Sorokin upon his arrival in New York, it certainly doesn’t appear he needs three seasons as an understudy. The rival Rangers have fellow Russian netminder Igor Shesterkin set for 1A duty this season at more than a year younger with similar dominance in the KHL prior to his 12-game stint with the blueshirts last season – largely a successful one in which he posted a .932 Sv%.
When everything goes wrong, there is one man to save the day – Ilya Sorokin. pic.twitter.com/Q8iHWFWtqx
— KHL (@khl_eng) November 29, 2016
Nevertheless, Sorokin will likely split the crease with Varlamov with the latter coming off a 2.62 GAA and .914 Sv% in his first season with the Islanders in 2019-20. He’s the owner of a career 2.67 GAA and .915 Sv%, but has been solid, at best, in three of the last four seasons with an excellent 2017-18 season as the outlier while with the Colorado Avalanche.
All told, the Islanders ranked eighth with a .911 Sv% from their goaltending last season and 10th with a .923 Sv% at 5v5 play. Interestingly, they ranked 10th with an .833 Sv% on high-danger scoring chances. While that’s clearly a quality numbers relative to their peers, it still doesn’t explain how the Islanders were so out-chanced and allowed plenty of scoring opportunities but managed to escape with a top-10 defense.
At the end of the day, however, it would appear the Islanders are set with a real nice-looking goaltending tandem at the moment and the future certainly appears super bright with Sorokin now in tow.
2020-21 New York Islanders Predictions
It’s always tough to know how the Isles will fare, but if the last two seasons have taught us anything it’s probably a bad idea to count them out.
I mean, every team wants to score with the best of em’, but teams that more increased emphasis on the defensive structure of their game rarely generate offense somewhere near the league’s top 10. The Boston Bruins come to mind as a team that consistently posts excellent figures at both ends of the ice, as do the Tampa Bay Lightning, but it’s certainly a rarity in this league.
With the same cast of characters up front, I don’t expect anything more or less from this offense. If I had to choose a side, I’d choose less with the team’s bottom six largely devoid of proven, NHL offensive talent while the young blood will have to rear its head at the offensive end of the ice for this offense to improve next season.
The same pretty much goes for the back end. The loss of Toews actually hurts more from a power play and offensive perspective, and names such as Leddy and Boychuk aren’t at the peaks of their respective games these days, especially the latter. However, names like Pelech and Mayfield are solid defenders who aren’t flashy but get the job done. Dobson will in his first full tour of duty with Toews out of the top six, and he’ll learn on the fly in the bottom pair, likely with Boychuk.
Again, if I were to choose a side here, I’d choose regression. Not in their goals-against figure due to the goaltending, but more to do with teams being able to play more in their end and control the puck while generating more shots and high-danger chances than we saw last season.
That said, the structure that Barry Trotz has instituted here has been brilliant and their defense has been among the best in the league since the day he took over. He’s the main reason why I believe the Islanders will be fine defensively.
I also believe in the goaltending tandem as Varlamov should be solid once again while Sorokin could be brilliant behind this defensive structure. The KHL is about as good a barometer for future NHL results than any other league in the world, and he’s been absolutely brilliant, beyond belief actually given his age, in his KHL career.
There’s no doubt the Metropolitan is going to be a tough division next season. Aside from the New Jersey Devils, the seven other teams in this division certainly boast postseason aspirations and the arch rival Rangers have become a big-time threat themselves.
I fully believe both wild card spots in the Eastern Conference come from the Metro, however, and I believe that’s where this team ultimately lands. They’ll earn a Wild Card spot and make their way to the second round of the playoffs before exiting after another fairly successful season on Long Island.