Last season, the Islanders found a way to squeak back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing out on the post-season in 2021-22.
Matched up against the Carolina Hurricanes in the opening round, the Islanders fell short losing the series 4-2, including a heart-breaking overtime loss in Game 6 at UBS Arena that ended their season.
And now, with training camp getting underway Thursday at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow, the Islanders look to turn the page on last season and continue their quest for the fifth Stanley Cup in franchise history.
“It’s always about improving and getting better,” head coach Lane Lambert told Greater Long Island. “We made strides (last season) and we have more things to do and get better.”
The Islanders head into the 2023-24 season with a similar roster to the one that they ended last season with. While not a lot of changes were made, there are reasons to be optimistic about the Islanders’ chances to be a contender this season.
Bo Horvat, a trade deadline acquisition, is signed long-term and will have his first training camp on Long Island, where he is now settled in with his family in their new home. Upon his arrival last season, he established an immediate chemistry with Mat Barzal, but the plug was pulled on that electricity when Barzal went down with a knee injury.
“Hopefully we can rekindle what we had,” said Horvat. “It was a lot of fun to play with him when we were healthy. I’m looking forward to a training camp under our belt.”
Barzal, who is sporting a controversial (at least among Islanders fans) short haircut coming into training camp, missed the final 23 games of the season but returned for the playoffs. While it has not yet been determined if Barzal will stay at center or shift to wing, which he says he is open to, the hope is that he can combine with Horvat for quite the 1-2 punch on the Islanders’ top line.
“Last year when (Horvat) first got in, we were flying and then the playoffs I was coming back from injury,” Barzal said. “We couldn’t really find it like we probably wanted to.”
The Islanders opening night lineup is expected to mirror the group that the Islanders closed the season with. There will be two notable absences.
One is longtime Islander Josh Bailey who was a healthy scratch for all six playoff games. Bailey was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks before getting bought out and is now in training camp with the Ottawa Senators. He penned a letter last week titled “To Long Island” via The Players’ Tribune to thank the organization, teammates and the fans.
The other is veteran forward Zach Parise who spent the last two seasons with the Islanders but has not decided on his future so he will not be with the team in training camp. The door, however, is open for Parise returning to the team at some point during the season.
“It would be great,” said Barzal. “Zach had a great year last year. He’s fun to be around. Zach if you’re watching (or reading), get back here! We’d love to have him back.”
While the group is mainly the same, the differences come in the form of Horvat and fellow deadline acquisition Pierre Engvall being around from the start of the season. Engvall, like Horvart, signed a long-term extension with the team this offseason. Both players will benefit from a training camp with the Islanders and the team will benefit from having their group together from day one.
“There’s definitely been some changes,” said Isles defenseman Ryan Pulock. “From the end of the year, it’s the same guys but adding Horvat there’s a couple of key pieces that we added at the deadline like Engvall that it’s different from the start of last season.”
“We have a lot of the same guys coming back. I think everybody is excited,” said Horvat. “We have a lot of really good pieces here.”
On defense, the Islanders now have all of their key blueliners locked up long-term as Scott Mayfield signed a seven-year extension during the off-season. He joins Pulock and Adam Pelech as the foundation of the Islanders’ defense for many years to come.
“Scotty is so steady,” said Pulock. “If you watch his game over the last four or five years, he just brings what you need every night”
Some potential pieces may not be too far away from arriving on Long Island.
There could be some tweaks in the former of young players who make a push for a roster spot like forwards William Dufour, Ruslan Ishakov and Matthew Maggio along with defensemen Sam Bolduc and Isaiah George.
Islanders General Manager Lou Lamoriello has indicated that a couple of players, including Dufour “are close”, but the team isn’t about to rush anybody up to the NHL. The Islanders will take a good look at their top prospects in training camp, but the likelihood is that most, if not all of them, will start the season with Bridgeport in the American Hockey League.
“There’s some opportunity there and we’re looking forward to seeing those guys and seeing how they’ve come along,” said Lambert. “Training camp is going to be really good to take a look at some individuals and certainly some options that may be in place for us.”
The power play
One area where the Islanders will need massive improvement is on the power play, a unit that finished 30th out of 32 teams in the NHL last season at 15.8 percent. The return of right winger Oliver Wahlstrom should provide the Islanders with additional firepower with the man advantage. The 22-year-old suffered a lower-body injury on Dec. 27 last season and missed the final 47 regular season games as well as all six playoff games.
Wahlstrom’s lethal shot from the face-off circle is something that Islanders fans would love to see on a consistent basis.
“I’m excited,” said Lambert. “I knew the game he went down in we were going to miss him and we did. He’s had a great summer so I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
The Islanders will open up their pre-season schedule on Tuesday, Sept. 26 against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden before their pre-season home opener the next night Sept. 27 against the Philadelphia Flyers at UBS Arena.
The Islanders will have two more home pre-season games on Sept. 29 against the Rangers and Oct. 2 against the New Jersey Devils. The regular season opener will be at home on Saturday, Oct. 14 at Belmont Park against the Buffalo Sabres.
There’s a lot of optimism around the Islanders heading into the season.
They have a core group that knows how to win and some new faces who joined the team last season that can help them be a serious playoff contender.
Sprinkle in a little youth along the way and there could very well be a lot of smiles in Islanders Country this coming season.
Top: New York Islanders’ Mathew Barzal, right, celebrates with teammate Noah Dobson after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)