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New York Islanders 2020-21 Season Preview

Continuity at forward, strong goaltending and veteran experience among keys to season

by Cory Wright @WrightsWay /

After a run to the Eastern Conference Final over the summer, the New York Islanders look to take the next step when the 2020-21 season kicks off on Thursday night.

It'll be a different season, with 56 games packed into 115 days, all against a realigned East Division. The stadiums will be empty - at least to start - and the COVID-19 pandemic will be the universal opponent of all 31 clubs.

But as different as the divisions, schedules and stadiums look this season, the excitement for a new year is palpable among Islanders fans. The Islanders have advanced to the second round in each of the past two seasons and have a firm identity under President/GM Lou Lamoriello and Head Coach Barry Trotz. Expectations have been raised and they'll look to keep moving forward this season.

"Forget about the last two seasons in the sense of what we've done with the understanding that we haven't got to where we want to get to," Trotz said on Tuesday. "We're not sneaking up on anybody, so let's get ready to go and find a way to get better… If everyone gets 1% better, we'll be better as a team."

With a new season upon us, looks at five keys for the Islanders:

Video: Islanders renew rivalries on Jan 14.

1.   Continuity at Forward:

There wasn't a lot of turnover on the Islanders roster over the offseason and even less at the forward position. The group that went to the Eastern Conference Final is largely back, save for Derick Brassard, who signed a one-year deal with Arizona and Tom Kuhnhackl. 

But a bulk of the forwards are back, including the Islanders top-seven scoring leaders from 2020 playoffs, preserving three of Barry Trotz's preferred lines heading into the season. 

"It's an advantage for us and we want to make sure we make it one," Josh Bailey, entering his 13th year as an Islander, said of the continuity. "We have a really good group, a really close group and we're all familiar with each other and got even closer through the experience last summer and want to use that to our advantage."

Mathew Barzal, who has led the team in scoring for three straight years, signed a three-year deal to remain with the club. He'll partner with captain Anders Lee, who's recorded four straight 20-goal seasons, and Jordan Eberle, who had 40 points (16G, 24A) in 58 games last season. 

The Anthony Beauvillier-Brock Nelson-Josh Bailey trio looks to build off their strong playoff performance. Bailey led the Islanders with 20 points (2G, 18A) in 22 playoff games, while Nelson and Beauvillier co-led the Islanders with nine playoff goals apiece. Nelson also tied a career-high with a team-leading 26 goals before the regular season was cut short.

With Matt Martin inking a new four-year deal, the Islanders Identity Line will also be intact for the 2020-21 campaign. Martin scored five goals in the postseason and led the team in hits last season, while Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck are the team's go-to penalty killers. With no fans in the stands, it'll be up to this line to raise the Islanders heartrate on a nightly basis.

Those three lines are all continuations from last season, so they should have an easier time finding a groove, especially with a short camp and no preseason. 

The most open competition in camp was for spots alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Kieffer Bellows earned a lot of praise from Trotz for his strong camp and could add some scoring pop if he winds up in that role. Bellows skated with Pageau during Wednesday's practice, but was listed on the team's taxi-squad to start the season. Leo Komarov, Ross Johnston and Oliver Wahlstrom are all other candidates to play alongside Pageau, as well as Micheal Dal Colle, once he's activated off IR. 

While there's no real track record for any of the potential combinations, Pageau's two-way game and hockey IQ give Trotz flexibility to adjust the identity of the line as needed.

"That's the line that we're trying to create a little bit," Trotz said of the Pageau unit. "You need a starting point and this is sort of where we finished off last year in the bubble and it'll give us a really comfortable starting point. After that you'll see different lines against different opponents... There's good competition within the group and that will give me lots of flexibility."

Between Barzal, Nelson, Pageau and Cizikas, the Islanders have some of the best center depth in the league.

The Islanders averaged 3.00 goals-per-game in the playoffs, dispelling the notion they had trouble finding the back of the net. There shouldn't be much of a learning curve for a veteran group that's used to playing with each other and playing a responsible game. 

2.   Depth on Defense:

While the forwards stayed largely the same, the Islanders lost two regulars from their blue line in 2019-20, as Devon Toews was traded to the Colorado Avalanche and Johnny Boychuk's career ended due to an eye injury

Losing two regular defensemen will test any team's depth, but the Islanders felt they had a pair of capable replacements in Noah Dobson and Andy Greene - the youngest and oldest players on the roster, respectively. 

Dobson was brought along slowly in his rookie season, playing 34 games to get acclimated in the NHL. Trotz feels the 21-year-old is better for the experience and is ready to take on a larger role this season. While cap constraints may have forced Toews trade, Lou Lamoriello said Dobson's readiness gave him the confidence to make the hard move. Dobson is expected to start the season on the power play.

"The plan has worked, plain and simple," Trotz said of Dobson. "He's been around pros for a year, he's got a little bit of experience and he's had time to get stronger as a young man, train properly and now he's been practicing, playing some games and just grown. He's ready to take on a real big piece of ice time this year."

He'll likely partner with Greene, as the wily vet returns for a 15th NHL season. The 38-year-old is a calm and quietly-effective blueliner who can play either side and is expected to help further Dobson's development. 

Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield are expected to be paired together, as Leddy exhibits similar smooth-skating, offensive qualities to Toews, who was Mayfield's partner, while Mayfield's stay-at-home, physical game mimics that of Boychuk, who was Leddy's partner.

Boychuk's departure puts some more onus on Mayfield to be a physical presence, as well as an increased role on the penalty kill. 

Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech are expected to be Trotz's horses on the back end, as the pair led the Islanders in TOI last season. Pelech, perhaps the Islanders best defensive presence, is healthy after breaking his wrist in Game 5 vs Tampa Bay and ready to go. Pulock is the Islanders top offensive d-man, racking up 10 goals and 25 assists last season, but has developed his defensive game, leading the Islanders in blocks last year. Expect this pair to see a lot of tough matchups again this season.  

Thomas Hickey brings experience (449 career games) as a seventh defenseman. After Hickey, there's a considerable drop-off in NHL experience, (Sebastian Aho played 22 games in 2017-18), so while the Islanders top-six remains formidable - they've been top-10 in goals against for two straight seasons - staying healthy will be key.

3.   Varlamov and Sorokin

The Islanders have gotten great goaltending in each of the past two seasons, maintaining success with three different goalies playing in at least 45 games. No Islanders goalie has had under a .914 SV% after working with the Islanders esteemed goalie department of Mitch Korn and Piero Greco. 

Semyon Varlamov had a bounce-back year in his first season with the Islanders, setting a franchise playoff shutout streak and backstopping the Islanders to the ECF. He'll - deservedly - start game one of the season and Trotz said with the easier travel, he wouldn't be afraid to ride Varlamov on both nights of a back-to-back. 

Varlamov's new goalie partner is Ilya Sorokin, one of the Islanders top prospects whose debut has been eagerly awaited on Long Island since he was drafted in 2014. Sorokin was a stud in the KHL - 134-64-22 in 244 regular-season games, a 1.70 GAA, a .930 SV% and 44 shutouts plus a KHL title - and has been training with the Islanders since meeting the team in the bubble in August.

The Islanders are hoping for big things from the 25-year-old, but not all at once. He'll give way to Varlamov to start the year and learn from his "big brother" throughout the season. But with Varlamov's experience, Sorokin's pedigree and the goalie department's record, the Islanders appear to be very solid in the crease again. 

Video: Training Camp 1/13: Barry Trotz

4.   Veteran Experience and Team Identity

Barry Trotz praised his group's focus and professionalism in the bubble, embracing and overcoming the adversity of being sequestered in an unusual environment for an extended period. 

The Islanders came together through the adverse conditions and kept their focus on their team identity and winning hockey games. The Islanders know how they need to play to be successful; forecheck hard and play positionally sound, tight-checking hockey. 

"Let's stay true to our identity that works for us," Trotz said. "It may not work for our opponents or different teams or organizations, but it works for us, so let's make sure we know who we are, play the way we know we can and if we do that it'll give us the best chance to be successful. When we were playing the way we can we had pretty decent success the last two years, so just build on that."

If there were ever a year for continuity, this would be it, with a 10-day training camp and no exhibition games to tune up before the real thing. Trotz said his team already knows the systems, so there was less teaching of new concepts in the truncated camp, but rather a focus on some foundational principles. He praised his team for arriving to camp in shape and credited the group's preparedness as a sign of maturity. 

"There's no question the answer to that is yes," Lamoriello said of familiarity as an early advantage. "The coaching staff is pretty much intact going into our third year here... The philosophy is consistent throughout our coaching staff and whatever tweaks that are made with the system and with the style the players that we have, have adjusted. The core has remained the same. There's no question that the familiarity with the system is a benefit and where it has the most benefit is when you do make some changes, you're coming off a foundation." 

With only 56 games - and all of them four-point affairs vs divisional rivals - a slow start could be costly. Luckily, the Islanders can rely on their bubble experience, having ramped up quickly during the postseason, winning eight of their first 10 games in the bubble. That's experience they can draw on, as well as creating their own energy in empty buildings and the other COVID precautions.

"It kind of feels like a continuation of things," Lee said. "It just feels like you're picking up where you left off… You didn't have that regular summer break in a sense so it definitely feels like we can pick up and continue on."

Video: Built on New York

5.   Tight-Knit Group

The Islanders are a tight-knit locker room and that's a good thing heading into a strange season where they'll be seeing - and leaning on - each other a lot. That closeness helped buoy them in the bubble and the Islanders have gone to great lengths to preserve it, like keeping Johnny Boychuk around to skate with injured players and be in the room. The Islanders brass see the team chemistry as an advantage heading into the season and are pleased that the focus is on we over me.

"The most impressive thing is something that you like to see is that they liked each other, they do like each other, and they're happy for each other," Lamoriello said ahead of camp. "The logo is the important factor within all of them. No one caring who scores, who doesn't score, winning takes precedent over everything. They trust the coaching staff and they go and play and only do the things they have control of, and that is be prepared whenever called upon. The success we had was team success."

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