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MCKEEN’S 2023-24 NHL YEARBOOK – NEW YORK ISLANDERS – Team Preview – Player Profiles

RALEIGH, NC - APRIL 25: New York Islanders Goalie Ilya Sorokin (30) prepares for a faceoff during game 5 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the New York Islanders and the Carolina Hurricanes on April 25, 2023 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Katherine Gawlik/Icon Sportswire)

Review: Since John Tavares departed in the summer of 2018, the Islanders have stayed competitive through a goaltending-first approach. It can’t even really be called a defense-first approach, given the Islanders ranked 22nd in 5-on-5 expected goals against (181.77) and 24th in all situations (184) in 2022-23, indicating that their defense separated from their goaltending was unimpressive. Ilya Sorokin overcame that subpar defense though, posting a 31-22-7 record, 2.34 GAA and .924 save percentage in 62 contests en route to finishing second in Vezina Trophy voting. If not for Sorokin, the Islanders would have had a miserable year because not only did New York struggle defensively, but they also finished 22nd in the league with 2.95 goals per game. Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello tried to bolster the offense by acquiring Bo Horvat from Vancouver, who had 31 goals and 54 points in 49 contests at the time of the move, but he struggled with the Islanders, recording just 16 points in 30 outings. To make matters worse, Mathew Barzal suffered a lower-body injury shortly after the Horvat trade, preventing the duo from developing chemistry. Even with all that, the Islanders squeaked into the playoffs with a 42-31-9 record before losing in the first round to Carolina.

What’s Changed? The Islanders made no significant changes, but they did lock up Scott Mayfield and Pierre Engvall to seven-year deals, backup goaltender Semyon Varlamov to a four-year contract and, most importantly, Sorokin to an eight-year, $66 million deal. So, even if there wasn’t any meaningful turnover, Lamoriello stayed busy over the summer.

What would success look like? Sorokin needs to stay dominant to continue to mask the Islanders’ defensive issues, but if New York really wants to rise above mediocrity, they need more than just him. They need Horvat to adapt to his new team, which will be a far easier task if he gets to play alongside a healthy Barzal. If those two have a good year, the Islanders might end up average offensively, which would be enough for Sorokin to deliver the W on most nights.

What could go wrong? A long-term injury to Sorokin would of course be devastating given the Islanders’ reliance on him. To be fair, they do at least have Varlamov as a solid Plan B, but he’s 35 now and would be a significant downgrade from Sorokin. There’s also no guarantee that Horvat will be a great offensive leader. He was likely overperforming before the acquisition, as evidenced by his unusually high pre-trade 21.7 shooting percentage (his career average is 13.7). Horvat should at least be fine regardless, but they need more than a merely solid performance given his $8.5 million cap hit, and the team’s limited scoring threats.

Top Breakout Candidate: The Islanders don’t have any great breakout candidates, but one to keep an eye on is Simon Holmstrom. He had just six goals and nine points in 50 contests with the Islanders last year, but he was averaging only 11:06 of ice time. Taken with the 23rd overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Holmstrom has upside, and it’s clear the Islanders are hungry for offensive weapons, but he might still need more time to develop and may start the campaign in the AHL.


Mathew Barzal

An electrifying skater who can carry the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone at an elite level, Barzal is a sensational play driver who has the potential to be a serious scoring threat, but that offensive breakthrough hasn’t quite materialized either. He scored 85 points as a rookie in 2017-2018 and has gone five straight seasons with 62 points or less. Barzal finished with 51 points (14 G, 37 A) in 58 games last season, which is fine, but it is still not making the most of his significant skills. He opened last season with 25 points in his first 22 games, but that included just two goals. While he is ostensibly a center, his inability to win faceoffs does make him a candidate to shift to the wing. He has won 42.3% of his faceoffs for his career but won a miserable 35.6% last season. With the Islanders relatively deep down the middle, they could consider turning Barzal loose on the wing. The Islanders’ tendency to play a grinding style has not brought out the best in Barzal’s production but the 26-year-old has the skills required to be a point per game scorer. While there is a world in which Barzal gets to that level again, it would be more reasonable to expect, say, 65 points while recognizing that there remains untapped potential when it comes to his offensive output.

Brock Nelson

After tallying 36 goals last season, and 37 the year before, Nelson is one of those 30 players to have scored at least 30 goals in each of the past two seasons. While Nelson is not a dominant play driver, the results have typically gone well for the Islanders with him on the ice. During five-on-five play, the Islanders have outscored the opposition with Nelson on the ice in eight of the past nine seasons. Last season, it was to the tune of 71 goals for and 45 goals against. He opened the season with 33 points (15 G, 18 A) and 96 shots on goal in his first 32 games. He could not maintain that scoring pace, in part because he could no longer generate three shots on goal per game.  At 6’ 4”, Nelson has excellent size but is not a notable physical presence. He can use his reach, however, to gain space near the opposing goal and he is excellent at reading the play and making himself available in shooting position when the opportunity to score arises. Scoring 75 points last season was the first time in his career than Nelson surpassed 60 points. It would be reasonable enough this season to expect Nelson to record his third consecutive 30-goal campaign and 60 points.

Bo Horvat

Even though he opened last season with 31 goals in 49 games for Vancouver, while scoring on 21.7% of his shots, Horvat managed seven goals in 30 games with the Islanders, scoring on 8.1% of his shots. Regression can be a beast. He still finished with 38 goals, which put him in good company as one of 30 players to record 30 goals in each of the past two seasons. He effectively priced himself out of Vancouver by scoring 28 goals in 37 games and even if he was not going to maintain that pace, that production changed what Horvat could command on his next contract. Horvat is a sturdy forward who does not play a particularly physical game but does use that strength to get himself into shooting position and he had success playing the bumper position on the Canucks power play, scoring 25 power play goals in the past two seasons. After signing a big-ticket contract with the Islanders, Horvat will face massive expectations. Even if he does not match last season’s career-best output, Horvat could tally 30 goals and 60 points, quality production from a first-line center.

Anders Lee

An enormous physical presence, Lee has scored 28 goals in back-to-back seasons, a threshold he has hit five times in his career. He is not terribly fleet afoot, but plays to his strengths, carving out space around the net and daring the defense to do something about it. He is an excellent net front presence on the power play but at even strength, he still attacks the goal and gets comfortable at the top of the crease. As a result, Lee ranked first in individual high danger shot attempts and fourth in expected goals per 60 minutes during five-on-five play last season. He started strong, with 18 points (8 G, 10 A) in 19 games to open the season, but faded down the stretch, managing just four points (2 G, 2 A) in his last 15 games. His shot rate declined as the season progressed, too, which explains at least some of the reason behind his scoring dip. Lee should still be able to do damage in front of the opposition net, possibly challenging for 30 goals. He does tend to finish more than he sets up, however, so it would be reasonable to expect Lee to match last season’s total of 50 points.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau

Although he managed just 13 goals last season, his lowest total since 2016-2017, Pageau remains a strong two-way presence for the Islanders, which includes starting many more of his shifts in the defensive zone, finishing with an offensive zone start rate of 27.9% last season, freeing up the Islanders’ other centers for more offensive zone starts. While not especially big, Pageau plays a relentless physical style and recorded a career high 175 hits in 70 games in 2022-2023. He is also an ace in the faceoff dot and won a career best 57.9% of his draws. Pageau’s possession numbers tell an interesting story. He had a 46.3% Corsi percentage, worst among Islanders regulars. He also had an expected goals percentage of 51.5%, which suggests that Pageau was generating higher quality chances while suppressing higher quality chances in the defensive zone. Pageau did have a strong finish last season. Returning from an upper-body injury, Pageau had 11 points (3 G, 8 A) in his last 14 regular-season games, though he only mustered a single assist in six playoff games. Pageau has been consistent in terms of his offensive production with the Islanders, so it is fair to anticipate that he could produce another 40-point season in 2023-2024.

Kyle Palmieri

Following a couple of seasons with a lower shooting percentage, Palmieri started to find the mark again last season and finished with 16 goals in 55 games. After a slow start, Palmieri returned from an upper-body injury in mid-January and picked up his production from that point. In his last 34 games, Palmieri produced 24 points (10 G, 14 A) with 83 shots on goal while playing 17:44 per game. He then added five points (2 G, 3 A) in six playoff games. At his peak, Palmieri had a five-year stretch during which he scored at least 24 goals in each season. He is not at that level now, but the 32-year-old winger is still capable of providing secondary scoring if given the chance. While Palmieri did have 33 points in 55 games last season, that also came with an on-ice shooting percentage of 11.9%, which was his highest in more than a decade. Thus, Palmieri could be expected to contribute 35-40 points for the Islanders this season.

Pierre Engvall

Acquired from the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline, Engvall saw more ice time with the Islanders and finished the season with a career high 17 goals. A 6’ 5” left winger, who can also play some center, Engvall does not use his size to maximum effectiveness, but he was a consistent play driver in Toronto and that continued after moving to New York. In 18 games with the Islanders, Engvall had a Corsi percentage of 56.9% and expected goals percentage of 55.4%, both of which were best among Islanders that played more than a handful of games. A solid third line forward, Engvall can contribute in a secondary role on both the power play and penalty kill. There is an opportunity awaiting him with the Islanders, a chance to play more than he did in Toronto and that could give the lanky 27-year-old forward a chance at the best production of his career. In the 21 games that Engvall played more than 15 minutes last season, he produced 14 points (8 G, 6 A). That could be a chicken-and-the-egg situation, where he was getting more ice time because he had contributed offensively, but there is some indication that Engvall could have some untapped offensive potential. If Engvall produces 35 points, that would match his career high, but if he receives notably more ice time with the Islanders, that ceiling could climb higher, perhaps into the 40-to-45-point range.

Oliver Wahlstrom

The 11th pick in the 2018 Draft, Wahlstrom has not yet lived up to expectations, but he has shown flashes of the potential that made him a high pick. Although the Islanders have been very conservative with Wahlstrom, not playing him much more than 12 minutes per game, he has shown an ability to generate shots, a willingness to play the body, and a competent level of defensive play. He suffered a knee injury against Pittsburgh on December 27th, ending his season so that hindered Wahlstrom’s development, but there should still be a chance for him to earn a regular spot among the Islanders’ top nine forwards, where the 23-year-old can prove that he has 20-goal upside. There is a wide range of potential outcomes for Wahlstrom. If he continues to play fourth-line minutes, he can be productive in that limited role, but if he gets a real opportunity to play higher up the depth chart, Wahlstrom has the potential to deliver 20 goals and 40 points, maybe even more.


Noah Dobson

Taken with the pick after Oliver Wahlstrom in 2018, Dobson has emerged as the top scoring option on the Islanders defense, producing 49 points (13 G, 36 A) last season after putting up 51 points the year before. His offensive impact is what helps Dobson stand out, though his play away from the puck could use some shoring up if he is going to reach his full potential. There is naturally a lot to like about a 6’ 4”, right shot defenseman who is 23 and has put up a total of 100 points in the past two seasons, but Dobson has more room to grow. He finished the season with 11 points (1 G, 10 A) in the last 13 games, but his ice time was down during that stretch, below 19 minutes per game when he had played over 20 minutes per game previously. In any event, Dobson is the most dangerous offensive threat on the Islanders blueline. He has had back-to-back 13-goal seasons and should be expected to hit 50 points, maybe more if the Islanders can generate more offense as a team.

Ryan Pulock

Known primarily for his booming shot when he came into the league, Pulock had become a sound defender but his play without the puck has dipped in the past couple of seasons and the Islanders allowed 2.91 expected goals against per 60 minutes of five-on-five play with Pulock on the ice last season, the highest rate of his career. The Islanders have invested heavily in Pulock, too, but he could use a rebound season to give the club more confidence in his role as a cornerstone piece moving forward.  He was one of 22 defensemen to record at least 125 hits and 125 blocked shots last season. Pulock does not have the same kind of role on the power play that he had earlier in his career and that inhibits his offensive output. He had 26 points last season and is likely going to be in the range of 25-30 points in 2023-2024.

Adam Pelech

A premier defensive defenseman who does not get enough recognition because he does not contribute much offensively, the 28-year-old blueliner is elite when it comes to suppressing scoring chances. Among the 99 defensemen that have logged 3,000 five-on-five minutes in the past three seasons, Pelech ranks 11th in high danger shot attempts against per 60 minutes and fifth in high danger goals against per 60. While Pelech does not get nearly the recognition that he deserves, the Islanders have signed him through the 2028-2029 season, an indication that his shutdown defensive play is not going unnoticed with his own team. As outstanding as Pelech is defensively, he is not a big point producer. Based on recent seasons, 25 points if a fair expectation for Pelech, even if it does not represent his real value to the club.

Scott Mayfield

After scoring a career-high 24 points (5 G, 19 A) while playing a career-high 21:02 per game last season, Mayfield was headed for unrestricted free agency, but then the Islanders locked him up with a seven-year contract, which seems like a big commitment for a defenseman who will turn 31 early in the 2023-2024 season, but with a cap hit of $3.5 million per season, it’s a pretty reasonable price to pay. Mayfield is 6’ 5” and 220 pounds and while he can play a physical game, it is not an overwhelming part of his contribution. He is a capable top-four defenseman with some offensive limitations, but it’s not hard to understand why the Islanders want to keep him around. A strong finish last season, which included seven points (1 G, 6 A) in the last 12 games, propelled Mayfield to 24 points, the high-water mark for his career. Barring a sudden and unexpected change in role, he should fall in the range of 20-25 points again.

Alexander Romanov

Acquired from the Montreal Canadiens last summer, Romanov’s first season with the Islanders saw him finish with a modest career high of 22 points (2 G, 20 A) but Romanov continued to provide blocked shots (129) and hits (198), which is fine, but his overall play left room for improvement. The 23-year-old has the physical tools, but it remains to be seen if he can put it all together and thrive in a top-four role. He faces some quality competition on the Islanders blueline, so Romanov will have to earn his way into more minutes, but he does give the Islanders insurance if some of their top four options falter. Romanov may not be a big scorer, but he is on a defense corps with few offensive options, too. Beyond Dobson, most of the Islanders defenders can be expected to score 20-plus points and Romanov fits into that group, too.


Ilya Sorokin

If the 2021-22 season with Igor Shesterkin’s coming-out party, the 2022-23 campaign was the league’s welcoming celebration for Ilya Sorokin across the East River. Sorokin’s arrival in North America was almost overshadowed by Shesterkin’s own dazzling debut – but thanks to a heroic season that pushed the New York Islanders back into the playoffs, Sorokin was given his due in the form of a second-place Vezina voting finish and one of the league’s best statistical performances of the year. Sorokin put up an almost laughably consistent display with his third NHL season, bringing his career save percentage through his first 136 NHL games to a mind-boggling .924 in all situations.

Sorokin quieted any doubters who worried that the Islanders weren’t in it to win it with his third straight year topping a .700 quality start percentage, proving that he’s here to stay – and here to win. And while he still looks like he’s added some control to a game that always seemed to serve as a more high-flying foil to the more controlled Shesterkin’s game while the pair competed over in Russia, Sorokin showed this past year that he’s willing to have a little fun with things, too; now that he’s really come into his own, he’s started to add some flair to his tendency to remain constantly in motion and his inclination to make the big save when a smaller one would do. His tracking remains as sharp as ever, and he did continue to show enough structure and positioning to suggest that he could be the Marc-Andre Fleury to Shesterkin’s Lundqvist; he’s a lot of fun to watch, and he’s more than willing to show that he knows it, too.

Projected starts: 55-60