Ilya Sorokin has carried the Islanders so far, but what do they need to change to make the playoffs?


The Islanders’ advanced numbers show them as a team in the bottom third of the league if it weren’t for their goaltending and luck.

Now, the Islanders’ five-on-five game isn’t bad enough to offer anything drastic. Mass analytics models are wrong, and the Islanders are a better team than last season, despite a slightly worse five-on-five expected goals-against rate. Their defenders are brave enough to participate in the game. Matthew Barzal looks like himself. They are playing much better, more confident offensive hockey and are showing the ability to take the game to their opponents that they didn’t have a season ago.

But it is true that Ilya Sorokin hides many problems in this team. One need only look at Tuesday’s loss to St. Louis, a night without Sorokin, to see that.

On Tuesday, the Islanders outscored St. Louis, 40-28, 35-24, five to five. According to Natural Stat Trick, they outnumbered high-danger chances, 21-15, and expected goals, 3.74-2.71, five-on-five. And they lost 7-4, with the Blues’ last two goals coming from empty nets.

Matthew Barzal #13 of the New York Islanders drives the puck against Jake McCabe #6 of the Chicago Blackhawks on December 04, 2022 at UBS Arena in Elmont, New York.
Matthew Barzal scored 28 points in his first 27 games to help the Islanders bounce back from a disappointing 2021-22 season.
NHLI via Getty Images

Why?

Because Sorokin failed to save them for the first time in almost a month. That’s partly due to him giving up an easy goal on Colton Parayko, which he’ll definitely want to get back. But the first three goals Sorokin allowed were A-level chances — two two-on-one shots and a rebound after Ryan O’Reilly blocked the initial shot from the point. On a typical night, Sorokin would probably stop a few of them. But most goaltenders don’t, and the Isles are in a position where anything less than a fantastic performance in net could cost them two points.

There’s no shame in relying on scoring to win, and Zach Parise said Tuesday night that Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov “have been the best tandem in the league all year.” This is how the Isles are built to win. If they are still playing until May, it will be their goalkeeper.

Still, it does tell you one thing that even with the current Vezina Trophy favorite and possibly the league’s best 1B goaltender in Varlamov, the Islanders enter the weekend as the first wild-card team in the East with a .537 hockey o’ is burning. .

With Semyon Varlamov backing up Ilya Sorokin, the Islanders had one of the best save percentages in the NHL, but they barely hung on to the wild card.
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As currently constructed, the Isles are good enough to make the playoffs. But they don’t look good enough to do much when they get there.

How to fix it?

The attack lacks firepower up front, as evidenced by the high percentage of goals scored by the Islanders defense. That could be solved by trade, and Kyle Palmieri’s return to the lineup wouldn’t hurt either.

And on defense, it’s hard not to worry. The Islanders give up a lot of opportunities down the field and haven’t quite figured out how to play offensively to prevent enough odd man rushes to make Sorokin’s life easier. It doesn’t help that the best and most reliable defenseman on the blue line, Adam Pelech, suffered a head injury against St. Louis.

The solution here is difficult to find, but it must begin by ending the experiment of switching the bottom two pairs. Scott Mayfield and Aleksandr Romanov had a terrific game Tuesday and were on the ice together for the Blues’ first three goals — and it was surprising to see them together in the third period as well. According to Natural Stat Trick , their 42.41 expected goals-against rate is the worst of any pairing that lasted more than 100 minutes for the Islanders. Sebastian Aho and Noah Dobson’s 44.27 xGF% isn’t great.

St. Louis Blues left wing Josh Leivo scores a goal against New York Islanders defenseman Alexander Romanov during the first half of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in Elmont, N.Y.
Alexander Romanov has been missing lately as the Islanders search for their optimal defensive pairing.
AP

A split between Pelech and Ryan Pulock (unless Pelech misses at least some time) is out of the question. That forces Lane Lambert to return to the pairings he’s played together for much of the early going, and hope Dobson and Romanov can find some chemistry. For what it’s worth, it was always hard to see anything else as a result – the Islanders bet heavily on both players, neither of whom finished in the bottom pair.

If Pelech is sidelined for a while, then it gets complicated.

Will the Isles bring up Robin Salo to compensate and deal with the second-pairing left-hander or Aho? Do they try to play a right-hander on the left wing? Should righty Grant Hutton get his first appearance in the bottom pairing with Aho so the Isles could field a top four with Romanov, Dobson, Pulock and Mayfield – someone playing on the wrong side of him four that require? And if you want to get really crazy, how about lefty Samuel Bolduc, a 2019 second-round pick and currently with 19 points in 21 games with Bridgeport of the AHL?

All of these answers are imperfect in varying degrees, but the first may be the path of least resistance. Pelech is one of the players the Isles could afford to lose, especially with the Devils, Hurricanes and Bruins next on the schedule.

Silver lining

It’s important to remember that the Islanders aren’t a finished product, or at least they shouldn’t be. They will have significant salary cap space at the trade deadline, and the roster should look different come March. Now there can be flaws, even if they are big.

With the Islanders’ offensive and defensive struggles of late, Lane Lambert may need to bolster the roster before the trade deadline.
AP

The Isles aren’t the most asset-rich team in the league, but they have first- and second-round picks in each of the next three drafts and some attractive prospects in William Dufour and Aatu Rathi. Another quiet trade period would be great.

What the Islanders can’t do is get out of the game before they have a chance to make a deal. So far, so good – even with the disappointing games of late. The similarities between the Islanders and last season’s Rangers are striking, although the Islanders’ power play is nowhere near the level of this group.

This team survived on goaltending and special teams until general manager Chris Drury went out and restructured the roster in March. One conference finals later, Rangers are experiencing first-hand what can happen when otherworldly goals return to average. There are plenty of lessons for islanders if they want to study.

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