With back-to-back trips to the NHL’s final four in 2020 and 2021, the Islanders came close to winning their first Stanley Cup since 1983 but those playoff runs fell short. Two seasons ago, the Islanders’ opened up their new home UBS Arena but the combination of a long season-opening road trip and players missing games because of COVID and injuries led to the Isles not qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But last season, the Islanders were able to find their way back into the post-season only to lose a heartbreaking six-game series to the Carolina Hurricanes. Had a couple of shots or breaks gone their way, it could have been the Islanders advancing to round two but the season ended with questions of what the group would look like this coming season.
As the Islanders get ready for the 2023-24 season, the feeling is that a roster is in place that can not only duplicate the success of just a few years ago, but to finally bring the 5th Stanley Cup in franchise history back home to Long Island.
“We believe that we have a group that can go all the way and be something special,” said forward Brock Nelson on the first day of training camp Thursday at Northwell Health Training Center in East Meadow.
“I think there’s no doubt and no quit in the team and a lot of belief in the group that we’ve had. Guys have been together for a while and everyone is pulling and wanting the same thing and willing to help each other out.”
Nelson, entering his 11th season with the Islanders, recorded a career high 75 points (36 goals and 39 assists) last season and was an NHL All-Star for the first time in his career. He led the team in points and assists and won the NHL’s Accuracy Shooting contest at All-Star Weekend.
Nelson and the Islanders are excited for a new chapter that lies ahead but also remember the disappointment from this past spring.
“You turn the page but you also don’t forget,” said the Warroad, Minnesota native. “The margin for error at that time of year we’ve said it before we’ve been in those situations where it’s razor-thin. It’s one or two plays and that obviously is the difference of having a different conversation in terms of the series.”
A big reason for the Islanders’ struggles during the regular season and their playoff loss to the Hurricanes was their less than stellar power play that operated at just 15.8 percent during the regular season, the third-worst man advantage in the NHL. In the playoffs, the power play was brutal at 5.8 percent.
There are reasons to feel that the power play will be better in 2023-24.
The Islanders will welcome back right winger Oliver Wahlstrom who missed the last 47 games of the regular season and all six playoff games with a lower-body injury. They will also have trading deadline acquisitions Bo Horvat and Pierre Engvall around from the start with both now signed long-term.
“It’s nice to get those guys acclimated to Long Island and settle into their homes and not have to deal with family transitions and hotels and things like that,” said Nelson.
While veterans Josh Bailey and Zach Parise are no longer with the team (the door is still open for Parise to come back), the Islanders have brought most of their core group back. The busy off-season included the signing of goalie Ilya Sorokin to a contract extension along with the re-signing of backup goalie Semyon Varlamov and defenseman Scott Mayfield to new contracts.
This is a group that has won a lot of games, including a lot of playoff contests, over the last five seasons and there is still the expectation that they can compete for a championship. By battling their way into the playoffs last season, the Islanders have high hopes this season.
“For us, you’re obviously excited we had the opportunity to get tot that point being where we were in January,” said Nelson. “It showed signs of promise and no quit in the group and a lot of belief. You try to use that as motivation knowing that you’re right there and get off to a good start and try to lead the team from an early point and put yourself in a better spot.”
With a group that includes the likes of Brock Nelson, Mat Barzal, Anders Lee and Bo Horvat up front, a blueline with Ryan Pulock, Noah Dobson, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield and arguably the best goaltending tandem in the NHL with Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov, the Islanders go into this season knowing that they have a chance to win every game against any opponent.
And it’s a group that is battle-tested in the playoffs.