Islanders must experiment with power play to avoid another flop

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By Susan Comstock

One of the first lessons Lane Lambert must take into his second year as an NHL bench boss comes from the Islanders’ biggest failure of 2022-23.

That would be in building a coherent five-on-four attack after the Islanders’ 15.77 percent power-play conversion rate ranked 30th in the league over the full season and got worse as the year went on.

After a free-agency period in which the only addition to the forward group was Julien Gauthier — and he is very much not an option for power-play minutes — the five-on-four depth chart going into camp reads roughly the same as it did until Game 6 of the playoffs against the Hurricanes.

To refresh your memory, that is a first unit of Noah Dobson, Mathew Barzal, Bo Horvat, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee.

The second unit is less clear with Zach Parise yet to make a decision on playing this season, but Sebastian Aho, Pierre Engvall, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Kyle Palmieri rounded out that group last season when the Islanders were at full strength.

If you are wondering why the composition of these units would stay the same after such an abysmal failure of a season, well, that is sort of the point.

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Mathew Barzal #13 of the New York Islanders celebrates a second period goal against the Vancouver Canucks and is joined by Noah Dobson #8 (L) and Bo Horvat #14 (R) at UBS Arena on February 09, 2023 in Elmont, New York.
Mathew Barzal, Noah Dobson and Bo Horvat helped anchor a power play that looked good on paper, but finished 30th in the NHL in conversion rate last season.
Getty Images

The failure of the power play to do better than 1-for-18 in the playoffs was no surprise. The Islanders were getting Barzal back from injury, but there were months and months of foreshadowing — before and after Horvat’s acquisition, before and after Barzal got hurt — that keeping things status quo would not cut it.

Lambert and assistant coach John MacLean’s impulse to see what it would look like with Horvat and Barzal together on the top unit was understandable, especially because the seven regular-season games they played before Barzal’s injury amounted to the best the five-on-four unit looked all year. It would be equally understandable to give it a go like that in training camp with a fully healthy Barzal.

Treating the top unit as all-but-sacred, though, amounted to one of the biggest failures of the season, and must be rectified this time around.

There’s little doubt that the five who will open camp on the first unit are, on paper, the five who should.

That group includes high-end talent, and, even accounting for Barzal’s injury and the first half of the season being played without Horvat, its underperformance was baffling.

Head coach Lane Lambert New York Islanders watches from the bench during the third period of the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Mullett Arena on December 16, 2022 in Tempe, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Islanders 5-4.
Lane Lambert and assistant coach John MacLean largely were unwilling to shuffle their top power-play unit despite its lack of punch.
Getty Images

According to Natural Stat Trick, the trio of Dobson, Nelson and Lee — which we can use as a stand-in for the season-long top unit — played 210:03 on the power play last season and accounted for just 87 high-danger chances, less than one for every two-minute minor.

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But what looks like the best unit over 82 games might not be the best unit on a given day. It may not even end up being the best over 82 games.

Given Lambert’s quick trigger to juggle his forward lines, it’s surprising he was so reluctant to do the same on the power play. It took until the last game of the postseason to try a first unit without Dobson up top.

There were points during the season when injuries prevented the Islanders from doing much experimentation. But not so many that they were handcuffed from doing so entirely.

Brock Nelson #29 of the New York Islanders skates down ice during the first period at UBS Arena, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Uniondale, NY.
Brock Nelson’s six goals on the power play paced a group that scored less than 16 percent of the time with a man advantage.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

In the end, the Islanders were caught looking as though they were the last people to see what was plain as day to everyone else watching.

That can’t happen a second time.

Lee to host Kancer Jam

Islanders captain Anders Lee will host a fundraising event for the Jam Kancer in the Kan Foundation to raise money for families fighting cancer on Sept. 16 at Northwell Health Ice Center.

The Kan Jam tournament will be the first event Lee has been able to host in-person since the pandemic, with similar events hosted by Lee in the past raising over $100,000.

“This event’s one of the things that I really look forward to,” Lee said on a Zoom teleconference last week. “Being able to have a bunch of families out, a bunch of kids out, being able to hang out with them for an afternoon, play some Kan Jam, it’s a really nice thing and we get to raise money for a really good cause. It’s been a little bit. We’ve been itching to get back.”

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Isles prospects at World Juniors Showcase

Islanders prospect Quinn Finley scores at the World Juniors Summer Showcase.
Islanders prospect Quinn Finley scores at the World Juniors Summer Showcase.

Four Islanders prospects played in the World Juniors Summer Showcase last week in Plymouth, Mich.: Quinn Finley, Zach Schulz, Calle Odelius and Jesse Nurmi.

All four played in four games at the showcase. Though time-on-ice stats aren’t public for the exhibition, the presence of all four indicates they could be at World Junior Championships in Gothenburg come December.

Odelius and Nurmi played on the Swedish and Finnish teams, respectively, at the last World Juniors, but it would be the first such chance for Finley and Schulz if they make the American squad.

Finley was the lone Islanders prospect to tally points in the showcase, notching a goal and a secondary assist in a U.S. intrasquad game.

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