Islanders season preview: Lee return key to deeper playoff run

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The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the New York Islanders.

Coach: Barry Trotz (fourth season)

Last season: 32-17-7; fourth place in MassMutual East Division, lost to Tampa Bay Lightning in Stanley Cup Semifinals

3 KEYS

1. Lee returns

Anders Lee skated with his teammates for the Islanders’ first on-ice session of training camp Sept. 23; the forward missed the final two months of the regular season and all of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after he sustained a knee injury March 11. The Islanders captain scored 12 goals in 27 games prior to the injury and is expected to again play alongside center Mathew Barzal. Lee’s health could go a long way in determining whether New York can take another step this season after being eliminated in the third round by the Lightning in back-to-back seasons.

2. Strength in goal

Semyon Varlamov tied Philipp Grubauer for the NHL lead last season with seven shutouts in 36 games, and had a 2.04 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. Ilya Sorokin will get his first taste of an 82-game NHL schedule after looking comfortable as a rookie last season; the 26-year-old had a 2.17 GAA, .918 save percentage and three shutouts in 22 games (21 starts). The Islanders will play back-to-back games 19 times this season, so Sorokin should expect a heavier workload.

3. Surviving the start

The Islanders move to UBS Arena in Elmont, New York this season, but won’t play their first game there until Nov. 20. That means they’ll play their first 13 games on the road, the longest stretch in their history (they played nine straight on the road from Feb. 21-March 11, 2017). Given the parity in the Metropolitan Division, how they handle that season-opening trip likely will play a huge role in their playoff position.

Video: New York Islanders 2021-22 Season Preview

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Position battles

There is an opening on the top forward line after right wing Jordan Eberle was selected by the Seattle Kraken at the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Kyle Palmieri, who was acquired in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on April 7, signed a four-year contract with New York on Sept. 1 and could be the best option to play with Lee and Barzal, but Oliver Wahlstrom possesses an elite release and scored 21 points (12 goals, nine assists) in 44 games as a rookie last season. Leo Komarov, who is entering his fourth season with the Islanders, and Richard Panik, acquired in the trade that sent defenseman Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings on July 16, are the most likely candidates to be the 13th forward. Sebastian Aho, Thomas Hickey and Erik Gustafsson, who is with the Islanders on a professional tryout, will vie for a spot as the seventh defenseman.

Most intriguing addition

Zach Parise agreed to a one-year contract Sept. 10 and arrived in training camp with something to prove after the 37-year-old forward had the remaining four seasons of his 13-year contract bought out by the Minnesota Wild on July 13. Parise scored 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 45 games last season after scoring 46 points (25 goals, 21 assists) in 69 games in 2019-20. He’ll be given a chance to prove he still can contribute, likely in a third-line role.

Biggest potential surprise

Wahlstrom has the ability to be a 30-goal scorer this season if provided a lengthy opportunity to play with Barzal and Lee. Wahlstrom (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) doesn’t shy away from contact and could be a major contributor on the power play, but his play away from the puck will be critical to his time on ice.

Video: PIT@NYI, Gm4: Wahlstrom one-times PPG in off defender

Ready to break through

Otto Koivula could get a chance at the NHL level should there be an injury, particularly at center. The 23-year-old scored nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 20 games last season with Bridgeport of the American Hockey League, and played 12 games in the NHL in 2019-20. Koivula was a fourth-round pick (No. 120) in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Fantasy sleeper

Defenseman Noah Dobson (fantasy average draft position: 170.9) scored 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 46 regular-season games last season before seeing an uptick in scoring during the Stanley Cup Playoffs with seven assists, including four on the power play, in 19 games. Dobson has a high fantasy ceiling in the scope of his position, especially if he lands on the Islanders’ first power play where he’d have exposure to valuable center Barzal, and wings Lee and fellow breakout candidate Wahlstrom. — Pete Jensen

Projected lineup

Anders Lee — Mathew Barzal — Oliver Wahlstrom

Anthony BeauvillierBrock NelsonJosh Bailey

Zach Parise — Jean-Gabriel Pageau — Kyle Palmieri

Matt MartinCasey CizikasCal Clutterbuck

Adam PelechRyan Pulock

Zdeno Chara — Noah Dobson

Andy GreeneScott Mayfield

Semyon Varlamov

Ilya Sorokin

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