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

What’s Gone Right For The New York Islanders?

The New York Islanders are having a great season. 

After 53 games played, the New York Islanders are first in the Metropolitan Division and third in the Eastern Conference. Overall, they own a 31-16-6 record and have been dominating over their last ten games. In their last ten games, they’ve only lost one game in regulation. The other two losses have come in overtime/shootout.  

In addition, the Islanders have the lowest Goals Against Average (GAA) in the National Hockey League. Currently, they own a 2.19 GAA. But, it’s worth noting that the Islanders have been at their best defensively when playing 5v5 hockey. When they are down a man or two, their penalty kill units aren’t as strong as their 5v5 defensive units. At this moment, they own an 80.3 Penalty Kill Percentage (PK%). Their PK% is decent, but it’s not too impressive. They rank 15th in PK%. 

Who Has Been Leading The Charge?

When you see a team doing well in the defensive zone, you typically look at their defensive core to determine who has been the most pivotal. Oddly enough, the Islanders defense hasn’t been that great. Devon Toews is the only defenseman that has a Corsi-for Percentage (CF%) higher than 50%. But while Toews has done well, he’s only played in 19 games. He could be the best Islander defenseman at the end of the season, but at the moment it’s difficult to give him that title. His sample size is too small.

The other Islander defensemen including Luca Sbisa, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey, Ryan Pulock and Nick Leddy have been decent. But, nothing to write mom about. 

Instead, the true defensive rockstar has been goaltender Robin Lehner. In 29 games played, Lehner owns a 2.02 GAA and a .932 Save Percentage (SV%). He hasn’t owned a GAA this low since his 2011-2012 campaign with the Ottawa Senators. But, it’s worth noting that he only played in five games that season. All-in-all, Lehner was a great off-season addition by general manager Lou Lamoriello and he’s paid off so far.

Additionally, in the Tableau visual (created by Tyler Kelley, @dockelley41) below, you can see how well Lehner has been doing this season in comparison to last season with the Buffalo Sabres. Lehner has improved in many categories including Delta Save Percentage (dSv%), High Danger Save Percentage (HDSv%) and Mid Danger Save Percentage (MDSv%). 

visual created by Tyler Kelley

Who They Might Look To Add?

Unfortunately, Lehner can’t do it all and the Islanders front office should look to add to their defense core at the NHL’s Trade Deadline.

The Islanders could look to trade for Alec Martinez, Dougie Hamilton and/or Colton Parayko at the deadline. If Lamoriello can add one of those defensemen, he’d bolster his defensive core and make it much stronger. If I were in Lamoriello’s loafers, I’d look to trade for Hamilton. Hamilton’s name has been floating around in rumours and yet he’s still an outstanding defenseman. So far this season, he has 9 goals, 12 assists, a 59.2 CF% and a 19:37 average time on ice (ATOI). 

If Hamilton joins the Islanders prior the deadline, the club will be much stronger and could be a tough competitor come playoff time.

stats from NHL.com, hockey-reference.com, corsicahockey.com

featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals