Elite Sports NY writer Justin Weiss answers fans’ questions about the upcoming New York Islanders season.
There are a plethora of questions and a shortage of answers. Just two months before the puck is dropped on the Barclays Center ice, there’s still a shroud of uncertainty surrounding the fanbase.
1. Will Mathew Barzal make the team?
There were whispers that Mathew Barzal was going to make the team last fall. While he ultimately didn’t, it’s very telling that he outlasted every other teenager — including Michael Dal Colle — in Training Camp.
Barzal, 19, took out his wrath on Western Hockey League opponents in 2015-16, posting 88 points in 58 games with the Seattle Thunderbirds. It was the first time in his junior career that he eclipsed the point per game mark.
The expectation is that Barzal will make the NHL club right away. Arthur Staple of Newsday speculated the he could be slotted between Anders Lee and Ryan Strome on the second line, although the Isles would ideally move Strome to center and Brock Nelson to wing.
2. Who’s in goal?
The Isles have a goalie excess, and it’s presented the front office with a major conundrum: trade a netminder and risk injury reprecasusions, or keep three goaltenders and have a trio of unhappy campers.
Unless Garth Snow has another trick up his sleave, it appears that the Isles will go the latter route. If that’s the case, the expectation would be that Jaroslav Halak would be the starting netminder, despite Thomas Greiss carrying the club to the second round of the postseason in 2015-16.
The big question that would emerge, then, is what will the Isles do with Jean-Francois Berube, who they just signed to a one-year extension? It wouldn’t make sense to leave him in the press box, and it’s not much of a help to keep him in Bridgeport, either.
3. Will Strome bounce back?
Although a trinity of heralded youngsters hit major stumbling blocks during their sophomore campaigns, none were hit as hard as Ryan Strome.
Not only was the former top-pick sent back down to the AHL early in the season, but he was scratched three times during the team’s historic playoff run, as well.
The talent didn’t dissipate, and neither did the determination. The blatant problem was his lack of confidence, something that could be fixed with a torrid start or a shift to center, his natural position.
Though it’s not the popular opinion, expect the slick-handed forward to bounce back and have an impact on the Brooklyn-based franchise.
4. Will the third line be a weakness?
This is a sobering thought. Fans have expressed their gripes with all three of them, and this would be a major downgrade from last season’s third pairing of Shane Prince, Lee and Nelson.
While it’s tough to forecast the effectiveness of a line, the prognosis is clear: the third line isn’t composed of much talent.
5. Will the penalty kill remain effective?
Think about this: the New York Islanders were on pace to post the worst penalty kill percentage in league history in 2014-15.
Greg Cronin’s unit was hovering below the 70 percent mark — a number which is appalling during the defense-first era we’re currently in, and would have been ghastly during the high-scoring 1980s.
As many hockey fans know, the Isles’ repulsive penalty killing corps turned it around — quite literally — and finished the 2015-16 season with one of the best percentages in the league.
This sudden reversal wasn’t explained by a change in skating personnel (the team’s core group remained static), but rather by the sudden turning on of the lightbulb (picture the classic scene in the movies).
The Isles’ penalty killers attributed this success to the to the sudden buy-in of Cronin’s system: “I would say we’re understanding what coach wants us to do,” former PK specialist Frans Nielsen told Newsday’s Arthur Staple.
If they keep on buying in, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be successful in 2016-17.