New York Islanders

New York Islanders: Regular Season Was The Appetizer

The New York Islanders regular season has ended. 

This is the time when most people predicted the Islanders would have completed their exit interviews, taken all of their belongings and went to the place they all called home for the summer.

That obviously has not happened. They ended the regular season one point behind and three points ahead of the last three Stanley Cup Champions. There are three huge keys to what got the Islanders to this point one year after being blind sided losing their franchise player and receiving nothing in return and left for dead. Here are those keys to one of the most improbable seasons including last seasons’ Vegas Golden Knights in recent memory.

First Key

The first key was culture change. But, what exactly is culture change? The Islanders have been ranging between nipping at the fringes of NHL success and living in the basement of the NHL standings for three decades. The last time they had the home ice advantage in the ANY round of the playoffs was 1988. Despite having the legacy of maybe the greatest hockey team in the history of the game from 1979-1984 the Islanders suffered a myriad of ownership, management, arena and player issues that many books have been written about. Players did not want to be here. Owners did not want to own the team. The team tried for decades to get a new home. Management and coaches were people who had no experience running any kind of winning team. Wash, rinse and repeat.

Scott Malkin, the new power broker owner of the Islanders had the wisdom to reach out and grab Lou Lamoriello to run his rudderless ship. Lou’s resume of success is among the best in NHL history. He took a Devils team and turned them into a perennial NHL power. When the Devils moved on Lou went to Toronto and turned a team whose lack of success had reached comical proportions into a winner. Toronto decided to move Lamoriello to an advisory position Scott Malkin pounced and made him the new Godfather of the New York Islanders. When a guy like that, a proven winner comes in to take the reins it turned heads. Instantly with one hire Scott Malkin changed the culture of the New York Islanders.

Second Key

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The second key to success was coaching. Only through hiring an executive like Lou Lamoriello does hiring a coach like Barry Trotz even seem remotely possible for a team like the Islanders. Islander fans were justifiably for the first time in 30 years expecting the Islanders to follow-up the culture changing hire of Lou with a coach that could right the ship on the ice now that the front office was under capable leadership. Then in a flash it happened. The defending Stanley Cup Champions decided to move on from Barry Trotz as expected and much like Scott Malkin made the most of his opportunity to hire Lou Lamoriello, Lou made the most of his chance to hire Barry Trotz to take over the behind the bench duties for his new team. Now instead of a beleaguered 11 year general manager who was never quite able to make the most of his opportunity and a first year coach who more than a few times looked like he had zero answers on how to mold the Islanders into a winner the Islanders had a front office and coaching staff to rival any in the entire NHL.

Third Key

There was one other huge key that needed to be cut to open the door to success.

The final key was the players. The Islander players are the ones who have the play the games. Taking the wisdom of their new bench boss and apply it on the ice. So much credit rightfully so has been given to Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz for getting the Islanders to 103 points this season. The players had to buy-in to what their new general manager and coach were preaching AND be able to implement it on the ice in the division that produced the last three Stanley Cup Champions. They also needed to do this mere months after their long-term captain essentially told them “you guys aren’t good enough” and abandoned them, taking with him a lot of the respect he had in that locker room and burning most of the love Islander fans had for him with the swipe of a pen and one horribly timed tweet.

Adding Top 6 Forwards And Top 4 Defensemen?

In the aftermath, journeyman forward Valtteri Filppula, utility man Leo Komarov and jack of all trades Tom Kuhnhackl were brought in. Plus, the Islanders brought Matt Martin back to Long Island. Martin was a healthy scratch throughout the 2017-2018 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and it was evident that the Leafs weren’t interested in keeping the enforcer long-term. But, Islanders fans near revolted at the guys Lou was bringing in.

Islander fans were hoping beyond hope that Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone or some other team’s star was going to be the answer they all were looking for was going to come in and save the day. Little did they know what was already in that locker room was the answer. Young defensemen Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech all flourished under Coach Trotz faster than anyone could have predicted.

Forward Group Re-vitalized

Mathew Barzal, who was like a wild, out of control stallion last season was taught to run in a straight line with the rest of the pack. Brock Nelson was written off by most writers and Islander fans has blossomed into a solid two-way center with career highs in points. Brock’s contribution to the team’s success this season cannot be under-stated. Casey Cizikas was put back between his favorite two partners in crime in Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin and given the ice time no other coach has given him obliterated his former career high in goals. Josh Bailey is a player who is still despite his All-Star season last year was written off as a product of playing with John Tavares thrived in the new system. Bailey makes up for what he lacks in flash and dash,  makes the right decision with and without the puck. New Captain Anders Lee took his new assignment as team captain with an infectious attitude that has spread to every corner of the locker room.

Losing Tavares, But Goaltending/Defense Becomes Elite 

Sure offensive production team wide was down. Losing your best offensive player for nothing will do that. Everyone knew the Islanders would be better defensively. No one predicted how much better. For the first time in 100 years. A team in the NHL went from worst to first in goals against.

That remarkable turn of events came with the two men tasked with patrolling the Islanders goal. Prior to the season, no one looked at the Islanders goaltenders and thought they were going to win any awards.

Robin Lehner

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Robin Lehner was cast-off by the Buffalo Sabres. Many Sabre fans blamed their team’s inconsistent play on Lehner himself. Lou met with Robin and a one year “prove yourself” contract was worked out. The deal was a no-risk/high-reward deal. 

Everyone knows of the struggles Lehner endured. He was brave enough to admit his struggles and he publicly addressed his mental illness and alcoholism. How has he responded in the Islanders system and with a clear head? Second in save percentage. Third in goals against average.

Thomas Greiss

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Thomas Greiss had one of the ugliest on ice seasons a full-time goaltender had in 2017-18. Dead last in save percentage and goals against average. Greiss worked his tail off in the off-season to get better for this year. Under goaltending guru Mitch Korn and coach Pierre Greco he has shut the mouths of every critic he had finishing fourth in save percentage and fourth in goals against average.

Taking Home The William H. Jennings Trophy

Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner won the William H. Jennings trophy. To put that in perspective here are some of the players who won the Jennings Trophy in recent history:

Jonathan Quick

Carey Price

Roberto Luongo

Braden Holtby

John Gibson

Frederik Andersen

Martin Brodeur

Tim Thomas

Chris Osgood

Dominik Hasek

Cory Schneider

Corey Crawford

All elite goaltenders that most share something in common. Out of the 12 goaltenders listed SEVEN of them have Stanley Cup rings.

This is not an award that is easy to win and the Islanders tandem of Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner just won it one season removed from the worst of both of their professional careers.

That is the most incredible thing that has happened to the New York Islanders this past regular season in a season of many incredible things they were able to accomplish.

Time To Get The Cup

Islanders players and the fans are ready for the main course of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Will it be as surprisingly satisfying and delicious as the appetizer? The meal will begin to be served to a fan base starved for a great meal tonight.

stats from hockey-reference.com, NHL.com

featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals

 

 

New York Islanders

New York Islanders: Back to Relevance?

The New York Islanders are relevant?

No one saw this coming.

There are four games left in the 2018-19 regular season and the New York Islanders, yes the same New York Islanders that lost their franchise player this past off-season are sitting directly between the two teams that have won the last three Stanley Cups in the standings.

This statement in of itself would have drawn laughter if predicted before the season began even if John Tavares did not discover his childhood dream at 28 years old on July 1, 2018.

Replacing him in the Islander lineup with Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, Robin Lehner and Tom Kuhnhackl did nothing to divert that way of thinking. Everyone predicted that at best the Islanders would maybe challenge for a playoff spot and then fade away to play meaningless hockey after New Years. This was despite first ballot Hall of Famer to be and newly minted Stanley Cup Champion coach Barry Trotz steering the ship.

Defensive Concerns Are Gone

From game one of the season something seemed different. The Islanders were making the smart plays.

Prior to the season many fans questioned If they could chip the puck out of the defensive zone. Well, they’ve showed they can. They did it instead of the higher risk of skating or passing it out.  If they were challenged in the neutral zone and had no other option the puck was simply thrown into one of the corners harmlessly instead of turning it over, resulting in an odd man rush against.

Again, fans questioned the Islanders defense. Fans were worried about their defense shutting down opposing forwards from entering into their zone with the puck. But, the Islanders did it again. They ensured that their opposition had little to no room to create a scoring chance. Cross ice passes for open one timers were minimized. Game after game the Islanders frustrated the most talented offensive teams in the National Hockey League.

Barry Trotz calls it “playing the right way”.

What a night and day difference from the run and gun Islanders of 2017-18. The ones that allowed the most goals in the league. The ones that other players on the Lightning and Barry Trotz’ own Washington Capitals laughing on how easy the Islanders were to play against when they dropped five or six goals on Islander goaltenders Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak.

The Roster That Garth Built

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The Islanders now sit number one in the NHL in goals against after being dead last last season with 90% of the same personnel, and 100% of the same defensive core.

We’ve never seen a team turn it around like this. How often does a team have a remarkably awful season, lose their best player and dramatically improve?

The Islanders have done it because of two simple facts. One, by doing the little things and doing them right.

Second, if it is one thing that the Islanders new regime has proven its that Garth Snow for all of his faults was not a bad judge of talent. Unfortunately, he was horrendous at was picking coaches. He was bad at forming a culture of winning. Snow was bad at putting a winning front office in place. All that is true. But, the Islanders are winning with a team primarily composed of players that Garth Snow brought here. That statement will definitively get all Garth haters fired up, but at the same time they cannot deny it as fact.

Now, before I alienate the Islander fans who ruthlessly attack anyone saying anything positive about Snow, please note that I was begging for him to be fired many years ago. He was a bad general manager. That being said you can’t deny the positives of the players on the team at this moment. They’ve helped drive this time from an abysmal season last year to a playoff berth and they’ve done it all without Tavares.

Trust The Process

Barry Trotz has the players believing. Barry Trotz and the Islander players got Islanders fans to believe again. Trust the process. Sorry Philadelphia for stealing your motto, but it’s true. Plus, the Islanders now have the rest of the hockey world believing. 

Finally, the New York Islanders are back after over three decades of failure.

player profiles from Hockey-Reference.com

featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals