New York Islanders: What to be excited for in 2021

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Heading into the new year, the New York Islanders will be looking to build off their most successful playoff performance in the last 27 years.

This offseason has not been too kind to the New York Islanders, as some key pieces from last year will be missing this season. Veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk decided to hang the skates up, while another d-man, Devon Toews, has a new home in Colorado. Derick Brassard signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Coyotes, and netminder Thomas Greiss joined the Detroit Red Wings on a three-year deal.

What we do know is that RFA Matt Barzal will be re-signing in the coming days, with training camp starting for the team on Sunday. We also know once that happens, UFA’s Matt Martin and Andy Greene will put pen to paper after verbally agreeing to new contracts earlier in the offseason.

While the Islanders did show interest in bringing in some new players to help fill some voids, in Andreas Athanasiou, Mike Hoffman, and Zdeno Chara, all elected to sign elsewhere.

But do not put your heads down. One, because if you play with your head down, you are more likely to get obliterated at center ice. But the second reason is there is a lot to be excited about with this team as we get set for the season.

Getting the Chance to Watch Ilya Sorokin

The New York Islanders, since Rick DiPietro, have not had long-term stability in the crease. Year in and year out, the plan was to sign veteran netminders as rentals, with new goalies coming in like clockwork. But finally, this team has a franchise-caliber netminder who should be a staple between the Islanders’ posts for the next decade-plus.

Ilya Sorokin, the team’s third-round draft pick back in 2014, will finally put on that Islanders’ jersey this season, as he looks to showcase his true potential. With Semyon Varlamov coming off a fantastic playoff run, there is no doubt in my mind that he will be named the starter and play the majority of games this season. But Sorokin will have his chance to play, and if all goes as planned, we are looking at another strong tandem on the island this season.

The 25-year old KHL superstar has never posted a goals-against average above a 2.00 in his six years with CSKA Moscow. The highest that statistic ever got to was a 1.61 GAA back in 2016. Over that span, his lowest save percentage was a .929, with his highest being a .953.

While we take these statistics with a grain of salt just due to the difference in skill and gameplay from the KHL to the NHL, we know that his buddy and Rangers’ starter Igor Shesterkin had success in his first season on Broadway. Yes, Shesterkin did start in the AHL, playing 25 games, before being called up; Sorokin was part of the team in the bubbles and got valuable time to practice on an NHL ice surface and see the speed and style of this league.

Nothing can mimic an actual NHL game, but I truly do not believe Sorokin will need a major adjustment period.

It will be rather exciting to see if this player can mimic his KHL play and if so, we are looking at a guy who can become a top netminder in this league.

A Major Chance for Oliver Wahlstrom

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With a glaring hole on either side of Jean-Gabriel Pageau on that third line, countless Islander writers have stated that Oliver Wahlstrom should get a crack. And I could not agree more. After going pointless in a nine-game opportunity last year with the club, the team’s 11th overall pick back in 2018 had a solid first campaign in Bridgeport. The 20-year old put up 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 45 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. And once the playoffs began, he had thought he had done enough to get added to the postseason roster.

But the team did not feel he was ready. At the time, it probably hurt the young player, but he used it as fuel to get extra work in while the NHL figured out the details for this upcoming season.

He decided to play overseas, where he was on loan to AIK, a team part of the second-highest pro league in Sweden. Even with missing some time due to a lower-body injury, he was able to play in 10 games where he accumulated eight points (four goals, four assists). He had zero points prior to his injury.

Islanders’ blogger Michel Anderson caught up with the team’s head coach, Hakan Ahlund, to get his take on Wahlstrom’s stint with AIK.

To sum it up, Wahlstrom has a ton of talent and is a dangerous offensive threat. He was able to be more effective when he returned from his injury, and if he can work on his defensive game, he will be a complete player. Under Trotz, I would expect nothing less.

Healthy and ready to go, the right-winger spot on the third line should be his to lose. With a year under his belt of pro hockey, look to see him take that next step. The ceiling is very high for the young forward, and if surrounded with the right players, could be a key piece in helping this team become more of a threat offensively.

Noah Dobson Gets Increased Role

Second-year defenseman Noah Dobson, with the loss of Johnny Boychuk and Devon Toews, just got a promotion. The 20-year old at the very least, will be a staple on the backend for this season and many seasons to come.

After struggling mightily early on in his rookie campaign, Dobson learned from veterans like linemate Boychuk and showed vast improvement as the season transpired. We saw his confidence rise exponentially.

In 34 games, the Prince Edward Island native put up seven points (one goal, six assists) while averaging 13:17 minutes of ice time per game.

Although I state that he got a promotion in a joking manner, the reason the Islanders parted ways with RFA Devon Toews (trading him to the Avs) was because they truly believe Dobson is ready to take that next step.

In a division filled with offensive talent, the Islanders’ defense will need to play to that level, if not a tad higher, to make their way into one of the four playoff spots. And Dobson will be playing an integral role in that.

Whether he will be alongside Nick Leddy or Andy Greene (or someone else), he will still have a veteran presence around him. Now, do I think it’s going to be a perfect sophomore season for Dobson? No, as he is still a young player getting acclimated to life at the NHL level and all the various obstacles that come with it. But I am excited to see him improve and continue to hone his skills, but more importantly, gain the trust of his head coach to throw him out there against anyone, in the biggest of situations.

Since Barry Trotz has arrived on the island, he has gained the trust of his players, which gives him the ability to play any line against any opposition, whether that be offense or defense. Having that ability makes playing against the Islanders a rather tough task, and Dobson will look to keep that trend going.

The Official Goodbye to Nassau Coliseum

The Islanders’ relationship with Nassau Coliseum over their history is one of loyalty, breakup, but in the end, a rekindling marriage that is coming to a close.

It housed the historical dynasty and has created a lasting connection with anyone who has ever stepped inside. It is a difficult task to put into words what this arena has meant to the franchise. The amazement that would hover over me when I stared at the emptiness of the arena is unworldly.

And when that arena was packed to the max, we felt like an army geared up for war. The fans of the arena became one.

I will cherish all the time I spent on the elongated bathroom lines, in the clustered halls, and the wait to leave a jammed-pack parking lot following a game. All these things that we as fans have taken for granted.

Prior to the team leaving for Barclays Center for the 2015-16 season, I made sure to buy tickets to the “last-ever game” the team would play at the Coliseum.

Despite it ending in an Islanders loss, I will never forget that bittersweet moment, a moment that I can still picture in my mind today.

Luckily for myself and the many fans on the island, it would turn out to not be their last.

But with the brand new UBS Arena at Belmont scheduled to house the team next year, this season will officially be the team’s last in Uniondale. As of now, fans cannot attend games due to the COVID-19 provisions the state has in place. But that does not mean we fans cannot enjoy this last ride.

I know when I’m watching the games on television that I will constantly be looking around the empty arena taking in whatever lasting moments I can.

Next. This is Patrice Bergeron’s team now, but for how long?. dark

The New York Rangers and MSG stated that they will re-evaluate fans returning at some point in February, as I hope the Islanders and the Coliseum will do the same.

This arena deserves a proper final sendoff.