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NHL Burning Questions: New York Islanders

Can the Isles get back into playoff contention? Adam Proteau looks at the biggest questions surrounding the team before the start of the season.
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This is the newest file in THN.com’s ongoing “Three Burning Questions” feature. In this series, we pose three key questions for each NHL team prior to the beginning of the 2022-23 regular season. We’re posing Three Burning Questions about the New York Islanders in today's edition.

THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE ISLANDERS IN 2022-23:

1. Is the status quo going to push the Isles back into the playoffs after a hugely disappointing 2021-22 season? Last season, the COVID-19 pandemic damaged the Islanders’ Stanley Cup aspirations. Heading into the year, the Isles were projected to be a true Cup frontrunner, but as the season unfolded, it became clear that, healthy or not, the Islanders had bigger issues than only their health. Head coach Barry Trotz once again gave them structure on defense, but on offense, they did not have nearly enough elite talent to compete with the top teams in the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division.

For example, the sixth-place Columbus Blue Jackets scored 31 more goals than did the Isles, and the seventh-place New Jersey Devils generated 17 more goals. The Islanders had only two players who scored more than 18 goals in the season; only three players amassed more than 50 points; and no player posted more than 59 points. It doesn’t matter how good your defense and goaltending are if you can’t do damage with the puck, and so Isles GM Lou Lamoriello moved quickly (and surprisingly) in the off-season to change his team’s look behind the bench, firing Trotz and replacing him with longtime assistant Lane Lambert.

However, when it came to the lineup, Lamoriello stood pat for the most part, acquiring former Canadiens D-man Alexander Romanov, but otherwise, keeping his lineup intact. In some regards, that’s a vote of confidence in his veteran group, but there’s also questions about Lamoriello and the Isles not being a destination of choice for NHL free agents and trade block candidates. Regardless, we’ll see right out of the gate how much competitiveness the Islanders’ 2022-23 squad really has, and there’s no question Lamoriello will feel the heat if his group doesn’t have what it takes to get into the post-season, let alone be a legitimate Cup contender.

2. Does the relatively-ancient Isles’ collection of forwards have enough left in the tank to keep the Isles in playoff contention? The Islanders’ top-12 group of forwards is one of the oldest groups in the game: nine of their best forwards are 29 years old or older, and four of them are 32 or older. Lambert inherits a group of forwards that only had one player – winger Zach Parise – who appeared in all 82 regular-season games.

Simply put, the Isles don’t have enough depth of top talent to thrive in the wake of another beating from the injury bug, and Lamoreillo has just $2.3 million in salary cap space with which to make in-season moves. He is going to be hard-pressed to make improvements without giving up draft picks and/or prospects, and even then, the Isles don’t have the deepest group of up-and-coming youngsters to use as bait in trades. For better or worse, they’re very likely stuck with this squad. And there’s every reason to doubt they’ve got enough skill to beat out the Blue Jackets, Devils, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins for one of the bottom playoff berths in the Metro this year.

3. Is Mathew Barzal a No. 1 center? Since his first full NHL season in 2017-18, Barzal has carved his way into the hearts of Isles fans who yearn to have a legit No. 1 center on their team. But after scoring 22 goals in his rookie season, Barzal hasn’t been able to post more than that – and last season, he scored a career-NHL-low 15 goals in 73 games. While it’s true Barzal equaled his career-high of 44 assists in 2021-22, he’s no longer mentioned as one of the most dynamic talents in the game, and at age 25, that’s worrisome.

So too is the fact this is Barzal’s final season under his current contract that carries an average annual value of $7 million per year. He’ll still be under team control as a restricted free agent, but how do you justify giving Barzal a notable increase when he hasn’t ascended to the top of the sport the way many believed he would only a couple seasons ago? Per CapFriendly.com, the Isles are projected to have more than $21.275-million in cap space, so they’ve got the means to keep Barzal around, but what’s the appropriate pricetag for a player whose development appears to have stalled? You can blame some of that on Barzal’s teammates, but at some point, you have to ask for more of the player himself.

The way Barzal plays may well determine how close the Isles get to a playoff spot this year. If he returns to prominence, Lamoriello will be happy to reward him with a big payday. However, if he continues to level out as an offense-minded talent, it will be highly intriguing to see what type of contract extension he earns.

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