Last season, the New York Islanders shocked the world by advancing to the second round of the playoffs after sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the club, it was the first year in the post-Tavares era and finding team identity was Job One. But after fortifying home ice advantage in the playoffs for the first time since the late 1980s, it’s safe to say the Islanders know who they are.
So what about an encore? Clearly the goal has to be winning it all. Head coach Barry Trotz, who won the Jack Adams Award last season as the best coach in the NHL, has changed this team into a defensive powerhouse. They were the most porous crew in the league in 2017-2018, allowing 293 goals against. Last season, they were the stingiest.
“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.”
The roster is (fairly) the same as it was last year. Except for one significant piece. Goalie Semyon Varlamov replaces Robin Lehner. The 31-year-old signed a four-year contract with New York after spending eight seasons with Colorado. Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Islanders were not what you would call an offensive powerhouse last season. They scored just 228 goals, fewer than even the Ottawa Senators, and were the least offensively-minded team to make the playoffs. They had three players with over 20 goals, including Casey Cizikas, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee.
22-year-old Mathew Barzal led the way in points last season, even if he did take a step back. He put up 62 points after scoring 85 points in 2017-2018. He shot the puck more last season, but struggled with productivity and winning faceoffs. Barzal is still adjusting to Trotz’s style and should fit the system eventually. He’s a potential 2020 RFA, though, so watch this space.
Like Barzal, Jordan Eberle saw a dip in scoring. The 29-year-old was detached from Barzal until late March and finished tying his career-low with 37 points. Of course, he skated a total of 78 games last season. When he posted 37 points the first time, Eberle skated just 48 games with the 2012-2013 edition of the Edmonton Oilers.
Can the Islanders turn around their scoring? Do they want to? New assistant coach Jim Hiller, who helped the Maple Leafs’ power play under Mike Babcock, could kick the Islanders up a notch on the man-advantage. That could produce more action, more cross-ice passes, more business for Eberle, Barzal, Lee, and Nelson.
The Islanders have the best team defence in the NHL. While other teams may have glitzier bluelines and bigger names, New York plays disciplined defence like no one else. They allowed just 196 goals against last season, the lowest in the league. The only team to come close was the Dallas Stars.
While it’s clear that playing such strict defence is taking a toll on the Islanders’ ability to score, who cares? Trotz’s system involves a lot of particulars, but protecting the net is at the top of the list. New York’s capacity to collapse and/or protect the inside of the ice changed them into the defensive dynamo we see today. Playing 2-3 in the neutral zone has also helped limit the opposition’s ability to break in.
Trotz is known for rolling four lines and not playing the match-up game, but his defensive couplings are compact. Ryan Pulock is the top defenceman when it comes to producing points. It does look like Hiller’s hiring could create space for he and Devon Toews to produce more on the PP, while loyalists like Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk will sustain the system.
Here’s a hot take: having quality goaltending is essential. In this case, New York’s goaltending benefits greatly from the defensive system. Varlamov and Thomas Greiss should nonetheless make for one heck of a tandem. This could be the year for Varlamov, who’s only won more than 28 games in a season once. If he gets the starts, the Samara-born netminder could have a career year.
Greiss could push him. While his partner Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, the 33-year-old wasn’t far off. He put up 23 wins, a .927 save percentage and a 2.28 goals against average – a career-best season in most respects. And those numbers were nearly indistinguishable from Lehner’s, which speaks to the value of Trotz’s brand of puck.
The Islanders took hold of a theoretical upgrade in goal with Varlamov but kept things comparatively similar otherwise. That’s a good move. New York’s commitment to defence should push the needle, which means they should reap more benefits in the playoffs. But there’s a flip side: nobody’s going to be surprised by this group. Not anymore.
Photo credit: NHL.com