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New York Islanders 2021-22 NHL Season Preview: Extreme possibilities

The Isles could have an epic inaugural season in UBS Arena...or they could take a step back after taking the champs the distance in two conference finals.

NHL: JUN 23 Stanley Cup Playoffs Semifinals - Lightning at Islanders
Can they recapture that feeling?
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Islanders enter the 2021-22 season in a position they haven’t seen in decades: As a widely respected contender picked by many to reach the conference final, Stanley Cup final, or even win it all.

It’s tempting to fall in love with that last possibility, even if it is largely informed by looking in the rearview mirror, after they overcame considerable regular season struggles in both 2020 and 2021 to go on lengthy playoff runs that turned everyone back into believers.

The difference this season is, both inside and out, they have added new believers — from pundits and rival execs on the outside to two NHL veterans on the “inside,” guys who used to be stars but are now past their prime in Zdeno Chara and Zach Parise.

Those two, who replace younger and fleeter-footed, cap-and-expansion casualties Nick Leddy and Jordan Eberle, are fitting representations of the hopes and risks of this iteration of the Islanders: It could all go really well, with that magical Trotzian-forged chemistry, veteran know-how, and Lamoriello-led culture that makes the sum greater than the parts. It could also go really poorly: if age, untimely injuries, and just plain average bounces go against them after everything went so right the previous two postseasons.

Postseasons, I say, because the previous two regular seasons were hardly seamless. 2019-20 featured a late slump that nearly cost them a playoff spot, and might’ve been saved by the expanded pandemic “play-in” round. 2020-21 was also a tight finish, requiring the Islanders to emerge from their pandemic-altered division as a road seed.

But there is a romance to the two veteran additions, a made-for-TV narrative that is larger than their expected on-ice impact: Chara was an Islanders product, dispatched in a Milburian/Wang aggressive move right before he became a star. His return has poetic balance to it. But he’s also 44.

Parise was maddeningly passed over in the amateur draft — again by Milbury, which tells you how long ago Parise entered the league — and he’s the son of a beloved and late former Islander. He also was a frequent scratch last season with the Minnesota Wild.

Anyway, those are the two main roster changes (though Kyle Palmieri’s signing or Anders Lee’s return are more significant) and coolest storylines, if things work out. But many others could play key roles, including multiple extras like Sebastian Aho (the defenseman, not the Hurricanes star), Michael Dal Colle and Anatolii Galyshev, each of whom will make a $750,000 salary whether they’re in the NHL or the AHL. That’s a handsome compensation to keep them at the ready as reinforcements, and agreeable to be a part of this cultural experiment even if it means an uncertain amount of time in Bridgeport.

It could be a special season. It could be a really disappointing season. To frame those scenarios, here’s a look at the range of possibilities and changes at key positions:

Goaltending

New York Islanders v Buffalo Sabres
Gonna need you both...
Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The Isles return the same goaltending trio as last season, with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin up top and veteran Cory Schneider available to spell in case of injury. But there’’s a catch: Varlamov currently represents that “in case of” situation, as he hasn’t played in preseason and begins the season on IR. Barry Trotz has tried to diminish the concern all camp long, reasonably saying that they’d rather Varly miss time now than in the middle of the season.

But missing all of camp couldn’t have been in the plans, unless it was a {wink wink} cap convenience thing. Schneider looked alright in preseason; chances are they’ll need him as Sorokin’s backup sometime in the opening month.

How it could go right: Befitting a preseason where there is jarringly positive hype about the Islanders, they were picked by multiple outlets as having the best goalie tandem in the league. That’s great, and it means there is reassuring insurance...but it kind of depends on both goalies being healthy. Right now, one of them is not.

How it could go wrong: Sorokin has a great pedigree and pretty much won the Penguins series on his own. But the Bruins appeared to have his number and he ceded the net back to Varlamov for the rest of the playoffs. If he still needs time to master the league, if Varlamov’s unspecified injury lingers for a while, and if Schneider remains a shell of his former self, this Islanders strength could sink their season before U.S. Thanksgiving.

Defense

It appears to be a happy (and overdue) vote of confidence in Sebastian Aho that he was kept instead of the defense-optional PTO Erik Gustafsson, even with a 44-year-old free agent taking the open LD spot created by Nick Leddy’s departure. There are a few prospects in Bridgeport who’ve been nurtured along and could probably fill an injury hole if needed, too.

And that’s a decent possibility, because the left side includes 44-year-old Chara and 38-year-old Andy Greene.

How it could go right: Forget about the older left side on defense, the Isles excel by defending as a team! And Noah Dobson is poised to take a big next step under the tutelage of Yoda Chara. And they’ve prepared for this depth need for a while, so Aho, Robin Salo, Samuel Bolduc, and even Mitch Vande Sompel and Parker Wotherspoon are just waiting for their chance to show they can deliver.

How it could go wrong: We’ve already touched on it, but asking Greene to log a full load again, then adding Chara to that mix...it’s kind of tempting fate. The Isles suffered with the departure of Devon Toews last year but eventually found equilibrium, although it was often awkward going with last season’s Leddy-Mayfield pair; can they do it again after sending Leddy to the Wings?

Forwards

The offseason began with speculation that the Islanders would somehow be in for Vladimir Tarasenko, a cap hit and uncertainty that never made sense to me. It eventually settled on some things that were far more realistic as Lou Lamoriello navigated the cap crunch: Re-signing Kyle Palmieri, losing a big salary in the Expansion Draft (Jordan Eberle), miraculously unloading Andrew Ladd’s non-LTIR-able contract, and signing Zach Parise on an affordable “It is your dess-tiny” deal.

So what’s changed? It’s subtle but could pack a wallop: With the return of Anders Lee, who picked up right where he left off (preseason caveat granted) after last season ended with a knee injury, the Isles will have a lineup and first line that features both Lee and Palmieri for the first time. Palmieri was acquired essentially to replace Lee; now they’re both here. (Of course, Eberle is gone...)

Meanwhile, Parise finally gives J-G Pageau a regular left winger, assuming Parise doesn’t face the same struggles that made him a scratch in Minnesota. But Pageau can make any winger look good, so he could very well cover some of the limitations that led the Wild to buy out Parise.

How it could go right: The first line starts off like a monster, the Nelson and Pageau lines continue there subtly stellar and oft-underrated play, and the fourth line continues to defeat Father Time.

How it could go wrong: Before Smithtown native Palmieri became a playoff monster, remember how he netted only two goals in 17 games after being acquired from the Devils? There was a while where that good-on-paper trade was not looking so hot. Then he exploded in the playoffs, and management essentially determined that he made either Eberle or Josh Bailey expendable in the Expansion Draft.

Hopefully something like his playoff form continues, the Isles don’t miss Eberle’s creativity, Parise recaptures magic, etc. But it’s possible these additions do not work out, and also one of these seasons the fourth line’s age and hard mileage will catch up to them in an uncomfortable way. Fortunately the Islanders do have some reasonable depth forwards in Golyshev (if he stays in North America), Leo Komarov, Richard Panik, and Michael Dal Colle.

The New Arena

When you can’t sleep, just turn on the arena construction cam

This is objectively true: No NHL fanbase has waited longer, and gone through more torture, to find Arena Certainty, than the Islanders. This is a franchise that had already identified its arena was a major handcuff even while it was winning four Cups in a row.

Members of the dynasty were shed through the back half of the ‘1980s for largely financial reasons, and it wasn’t strictly a Peter Pocklington-type situation, either: Nassau Coliseum’s design, its lease, and its concession arrangements were never organized to support the Islanders’ financial well-being. It was fantastic to experience as a fan (with a healthy bladder) in an electric playoff game, but it didn’t pay the bills.

All of that changed with the Malkin-Ledecky reign, and this season those godsend owners finally get their Desired State with the opening of [Bank or something] Arena in Elmont. We just have to wait until Nov. 20, after 13 road games, to see it.

How it could go right: They designed the new arena very intentionally, with modern fan and locker room amenities, as well as (they hope) an intimate, low-ceiling space that captures that Coliseum-like volume and electricity.

We shall see. But it could be a fantastic housewarming that goes on for years.

How it could go wrong: ...once they finally get to open it. The 13 games on the road to start the season could blow up and put the Isles in the hole from Day 1. And it’s hard to open a new arena on an accelerated schedule without having some warts to work out during the first season. It’s a decent bet the ice will take a while before it reaches consistent, high-quality condition. Other stuff could come up. Fans could complain about the commute, the atmosphere, the suits.

Chances of Going All The Way

New York Islanders v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Seven
Better luck next time?
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

How it could go right: It’s destiny! A team that knocked on the door and lost to the eventual Cup champion each of the past two playoffs, finally gets over the hump and brings Cup #5 home.

How it could go wrong: Exhaustion and old-man fatigue! Three long playoff runs in under three years has them running on fumes, and the rather tough Metropolitan Division keeps them from even qualifying or advancing. Or they finally make the Cup final only to face a formidable opponent like Colorado or Vegas rather than the very beatable Stars or Canadiens squads the Lightning faced.

Or, you know, they just lose in an earlier round, because every long playoff run requires some luck and good bounces, and sometimes that luck runs out rather than extends to new heights.

It’s all possible, but...it’s all possible! Every scenario, I mean. People with actual jobs to pick such things are putting the Isles in the mix as Cup contenders, and not without reason. It’s trendy, sure, but it’s also not completely crazy.

For too long, Islanders fans didn’t have legit reason to dream big. As 2021-22 begins, we do. And that’s...pretty nice.

Players To Watch: Dobson, Sorokin, Wahlstrom

We mentioned 21-year-old Dobson and how significant it would be if the smooth-skating two-time Memorial Cup champion had a breakout season on the blueline.

Up front, Oliver Wahlstrom, also 21, could provide a massive boost if he continues the growth he showed before an injury knocked him out of the playoffs last spring. He had 12 goals in 44 games, shot at 12%, and provided one of the few assertive shooting options when given a chance on the power play.

In goal, as mentioned, it’s a big season for Sorokin in his second year in North America. He is the heir apparent to Varlamov, and thanks to Varly’s season-opening IR stint, the time for Sorokin is now.

Two Quick Predictions

For our NHL season previews around SB Nation I was asked to include some predictions, so here are two completely random ones.

1. Robin Salo plays 20 games and has fans calling for him to receive a full-time role.

2. By the end of the season, injuries make the fourth line almost unrecognizable (except Casey Cizikas, who needs to stay healthy for this dream to work), but fill-ins step in to help them remain effective, if not “Identity”-defining. So it’s gonna be okay.

How To Watch

The NHL returns to ESPN (and its streaming platform ESPN+) and adds Turner Sports/TNT to its U.S. national broadcast lineup this season. Befitting the Islanders’ contender status, that means several more nationally broadcast games for the Islanders...and adjusting how you’ll catch the team if you intend to view every single game.

In market, most games are still broadcast on MSG(+). If you’re out of market in the U.S., those are still available through cable’s NHL Center Ice package or ESPN+ streaming (which replaces the NHL TV streaming package) or, in some cases, on NHL Network (U.S.).

But there are at least 12 Islanders games that will only available through these national rights holders. (When you look at the Isles TV schedule and spot an “NBCS” like yesteryear, it’s because the opponent’s regional feed will be a NBC (formerly Comcast, etc.) regional network. According to Sean Shapiro of the Athletic:

ESPN+ will also host 75 exclusive national TV games that will also be available to Hulu subscribers. These games will be produced by ESPN itself and not simulcasts of RSNs. Games on ABC will also be simulcast on ESPN+, while games on ESPN will be available in the ESPN App, but only with a television provider login.

If you’re still with me: League-wide (not just Islanders games), in the U.S. ESPN/ABC will have at least 25 exclusive national regular-season games from around the league. Turner will air at least 50 regular-season games on TBS or TNT. NHL Network will also air about 90 games in the U.S. In Canada, oh this is already complicated enough, but Sportsnet, TSN, CBC and French-language RDS and TVAS still carry the national rights.

LGI

Alright, you’ve been warned all summer about the TV thing. NHL.com will always list every outlet a game is available on (if you have it!).

The NHL season begins with a featured slate Tuesday night, including the expansion Seattle Kraken’s first game. But the Islanders season begins Thursday, in Raleigh, the first of six games in 11 days.

High expectations, a full 82-game slate to sort it out...here we go!

Poll

How far will the Islanders go in 2021-22?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Miss the playoffs
    (10 votes)
  • 2%
    Eliminated in the first round
    (9 votes)
  • 10%
    Eliminated in the second round
    (46 votes)
  • 5%
    Conference final loss, third year in a row
    (24 votes)
  • 10%
    Reach the Cup final, lose to a Western giant
    (46 votes)
  • 68%
    The fifth Cup will be lifted.
    (298 votes)
433 votes total Vote Now