The compacted 2020-21 NHL season schedule featuring realigned intradivisional play will pose its own slew of challenges. As will simply conducting hockey’s first regular season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, all 31 NHL teams are in the same boat and will be expected to put a cohesive unit on the ice despite having had no preseason games when the season begins on Jan. 13.
For the Islanders, here are some storylines to follow heading into training camp this week:
Ilya Sorokin has been considered the future of the Islanders’ goaltending since the organization drafted him 78th overall in 2014. And though Sorokin wasn’t eligible to compete in the 2020 playoffs in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles, the Islanders opted to use a roster spot on him to give the 25-year-old Russian a head start on bonding with his teammates.
All signs have pointed to Sorokin immediately joining the varsity squad this season, especially after the Islanders signed him to his one-year, entry-level contract in July just to have it nullified so they could subsequently sign him to a one-year, $2 million extension for this season.
During his pre-training camp media availability, Lou Lamoriello said Sorokin has been in New York for about a month and a half. He also mentioned that Sorokin is continuing to improve his English and has been skating with the team during voluntary workouts.
“He’s a talented young man, a quality individual,” the Islanders GM said. “It’s one thing to be playing on a big rink and the adjustable things that he has to go through, we’ll just have to wait and see. Unfortunately, we won’t have any exhibition games so it’ll just be in practice.
“We feel good about our goaltending. (Semyon Varlamov) is back, Cory (Schneider) is here, Ilya and we’ll also have (Jakub Skarek) in training camp we will have four goaltenders. It will be competitive and they will certainly be pushing each other.”
After Thomas Greiss signed with the Red Wings in free agency this offseason, the Islanders are down to Sorokin, Varlamov, Bridgeport netminder Skarek and Schneider, the former Devils goalie, whose signing was made official by Lamoriello on Thursday.
With the NHL’s introduction of four- to six-player “taxi squads,” teams must carry at least one goaltender on those squads, unless the club is carrying three goalies on the roster already. Considering Varlamov somewhat emerged as the No. 1 goalie last season, then backed it up with an 11-7 record 2.14 goals against average during the playoffs, he’s a lock for the roster.
Sorokin likely is as well. The flat salary cap will presumably prevent the Islanders from carrying a third goalie, which would probably have been Schneider. So Schneider will likely find himself on the taxi squad while Skarek remains with AHL Bridgeport.
Potential breakout performances
Islanders execs have been high on Noah Dobson for quite some time, making it known they believe he will become a key piece of the team’s defensive future. With defensemen Devon Toews traded to Colorado and Johnny Boychuk having to unofficially retire due to an eye injury, the opportunity for Dobson to take on a bigger role is now.
“We made a decision that Noah was better off with us than going back to junior, working with the veterans,” Lamoriello said Thursday. “What helped him tremendously was being in the bubble, working every day. He left on a great note. We have very high hopes for him. Tremendously talented.”
Anthony Beauvillier had a career regular season cut short last year, but somehow managed to exceed expectations during the playoffs with nine goals — including three game-winners — and five assists in 22 games. The 23-year-old could continue to raise his ceiling and mature into an even bigger offensive weapon than expected.
The future of Barzal
Though there’s hardly any doubt the Islanders and Mathew Barzal will come to some agreement sometime soon, the question is how much the organization will be able to commit to the 23-year-old star center amid the flat salary cap.
As much as the organization might want to lock up Barzal long term, it appears a short-term deal (two or three years) with a cap hit between $6 million-$7 million is the most logical route to take to keep the team under the cap and still give the 16th-overall pick in 2015 the payday he deserves.
Pageau land on Island
When the Islanders traded a slew of draft picks for Jean-Gabriel Pageau in late February, he was immediately signed to a six-year, $30 million contract extension to remain with the organization through 2026. There was no hesitation in committing long term to the 5-foot-9 pistol center, and he’s made it known that all he wants to do is prove he’s worth the investment.
Skating primarily on the third line last season, which tremendously deepened the Isles down the middle, Pageau was able to find chemistry with any line combination head coach Barry Trotz gave him. He made those players on his wings better, chipping in eight goals and three assists in 22 playoffs games.
Under the flat salary cap, the Islanders will likely be forced to turn to younger players with cheaper cap hits — such as Kieffer Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom. Those players could learn a lot from having someone like Pageau center their line and could benefit from his experience and offensive prowess.
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