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Islanders seek answers to questions they couldn’t solve

The Islanders had a long offseason. After harboring aspirations of playing deep into June, their 2021-22 season ended when they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2018. 

Since then, head coach Barry Trotz was fired and replaced by Lane Lambert, and defenseman Alexander Romanov was the only major addition to the projected starting lineup. 

So, the questions entering training camp aren’t too different from the ones the Islanders failed to give a satisfactory answer to as they finished with a 37-35-10 record last season. 

“I think there’s a sense from the players of having something to prove,” Lambert said last week. “There’s no question about it.” 

The Islanders will hit the ice on Thursday for training camp ahead of the preseason opener against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Monday, so they should start to provide some answers soon to the biggest questions: 

What will change with Lambert in charge? 

The last year in which Lambert, who has never been an NHL head coach, ran his own system was 2004-05 as head coach of the WHL’s Prince George Cougars. Since then, he has either coached in the AHL, running the associated NHL team’s system, or worked as the top assistant for Trotz, spanning stints with the Predators, Capitals and Islanders. 

Interim head coach Lane Lambert looks on against the Oilers during the first period at UBS Arena on Jan. 1, 2022 in Elmont, New York.
Lane Lambert looks on against the Oilers during the first period at UBS Arena on Jan. 1, 2022 in Elmont, New York.
Getty Images

Even though not much is expected to change regarding how the Islanders play, there is some mystery to whether Lambert’s philosophy will differ from Trotz. 

“I know Lane and I know he holds guys to a high standard,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said. “He demands a lot from the penalty kill and the role he takes with the guys. It’s gonna be no different with him behind the bench. It’s just the accountability and having trust with his players, his guys.” 

Who will play with Mathew Barzal, and can the Islanders get his extension done before the regular season? 

Barzal is the Islanders’ most talented offensive player, but he struggled to play to that standard last year. He scored 60 points as the Islanders failed to find the right players with which to surround him. 

This year, they will be picking from the same group of wingers after failing to add anyone at the position during the offseason. That will make the eventual decision all the more fascinating. 

The Islanders' Mathew Barzal moves the puck down ice during the first period of a game, Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Elmont, New York.
The Islanders’ Mathew Barzal moves the puck down ice during a game last season.
Corey Sipkin/New York Post

“We expect a lot out of him, he expects a lot out of himself and he’s worked very hard this summer for that,” general manager Lou Lamoriello said Monday. 

As for the extension, Lamoriello has declined to comment on any specifics regarding a timeline. Surely, however, it would be ideal to get it done as soon as possible, so Barzal’s restricted free agency doesn’t loom over the season. 

Can Lambert extract more out of Oliver Wahlstrom? 

The tension between Wahlstrom and Trotz was hard to miss, and the 22-year-old winger’s production took a nosedive in the second half of last season, when he scored just six points in his final 37 games. If there’s one player Lambert must have a positive impact on, it might be Wahlstrom. 

In theory, Wahlstrom’s offensive capabilities also make him a potential sidekick for Barzal. In practice, though, that pairing faltered when the Islanders tried it last season. They were outscored 8-6 in more than 200 minutes together. 

Who will win the sixth defenseman competition? 

As far as the eventual 23-man roster goes, 21 spots are all but official going into camp, barring injuries. The left spot on the third defense pairing, though, is wide open, as is the final spot on the roster at the position, assuming the Islanders carry an extra defenseman. Robin Salo, Dennis Cholowski, Sebastian Aho and Grant Hutton all will come into camp with a shot to be in the opening-night lineup. 

“I think the competition is real for those positions,” Lamoriello said. “And I say that because the other five defensemen are really incumbent as far as veterans. They’re seasoned in the National Hockey League.”

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