CALGARY, Alberta — Lou Lamoriello wasn’t exactly defiant, but on the afternoon of Aug. 22, it was at least clear he felt the narrative surrounding his team’s offseason missed the mark.
During a news conference to announce contracts for Noah Dobson and Kieffer Bellows, as well as introduce Alexander Romanov, Lamoriello spent much of his time defending the lack of moves to upgrade the roster over the summer.
“I feel very good about this hockey team,” he said.
“Sometimes some of the best transactions to make are the ones you don’t make,” he added, a few minutes later.
And in his last remarks of the day: “We would have made drastic changes last year if we didn’t feel good about the group we have and what we’re capable of doing. I say that with comfortability. I say that with confidence. I’m looking forward to getting back at it and maybe proving everybody wrong.”
After the Islanders finished off the first half of the season with a disastrous 1-3-0 road trip through the Pacific Division, it’s getting harder and harder to see them proving Lamoriello right. They are still in a playoff spot as of Saturday morning and may yet make the postseason. But a wild-card berth and a first-round playoff loss being spun as positive would only go to show how far this group has fallen in just two seasons.
The forward group Lamoriello failed to upgrade in a meaningful way over the summer still has all the same problems as last season, even with Mathew Barzal having taken a major step forward and Brock Nelson continuing to produce at a high level. Not enough skill. Not enough scoring.
That became especially clear in Friday’s 4-1 loss to the Flames, when the Islanders spent all 60 minutes searching for answers after Barzal became a late scratch. It’s not an overstatement to say it’s hard to see how they’ll survive if Barzal’s lower-body injury keeps him out for any serious period of time — that’s how important he is to the Islanders’ offense.
When the Islanders can get pucks deep, forecheck and play within coach Lane Lambert’s system, it works. But producing offense via controlled breakouts and entries has been an issue all year, and is at the heart of their struggles on the power play. Want to know why they’ve scored twice on their past 36 power plays? Because the Islanders are at their best when they are trying to get the puck back — not when they actually possess it.
Asked about that dichotomy after Thursday’s 4-2 debacle in Edmonton, Lambert said, in short, that his team didn’t forecheck enough against the Oilers, itself an admission of one-dimensionality.
“You turn the puck over and they come back at you,” he said. “You also have to manage the game well and be smart about who you’re playing. I thought we didn’t get [the puck] into areas [Friday]. Their goaltender plays the puck well. Early on, they broke the puck out a little too easily.”
A night later, it was the same issue in Calgary, and the Islanders walked away with a loss to show for it. It’s true that injuries — particularly Adam Pelech’s — have contributed to the issues, but every team suffers injuries, and the Islanders have been one of the luckier groups in the league in that category.
The injuries have exposed a lack of organizational depth more than anything else. Signing Hudson Fasching over the summer looks shrewd on Lamoriello’s part, but that is about it.
Neither Josh Bailey nor Anthony Beauvillier have stepped up in the way the Islanders need, and the two combine for $9.15 million against the salary cap. The members of the Identity Line are not going to make up for lack of scoring, and Cal Clutterbuck has struggled to stay healthy.
Ross Johnston, meanwhile, has played only as a last resort a year after signing a four-year, $4.4 million extension. Bellows hit waivers after playing one game. Aatu Raty may be a player in this league eventually, but he is still earning the trust of the staff, and if Barzal misses a few more games, the Islanders might end up using up a year of his entry-level deal to put a Band-Aid on the wound.
If they can’t string together some wins at home over the next two weeks, when six of their next seven games will be at UBS Arena, it will be a full-blown disaster. Who knows what Lamoriello will do then.
Remember, though, this season is not a referendum on the first-year head coach. It reflects directly on the general manager.