The New York Islanders enter the season with low expectations after losing a franchise player but there is more to be optimistic about than you may think.
We’ve all read it enough over the past month – Lou Lamoriello has lost his mind, and he’s just bringing in bottom-six players who don’t fill a need. But what the New York Islanders needed most was a culture change that leads to better team defense.
With these changes, and most importantly the hiring of Barry Trotz as the head coach, the Islanders are on their way.
ESPN posed the question this week
(spoiler: very few predictions actually made) and it got me thinking.
Will the Islanders be a playoff team? Smart money says no, but in an NHL where teams can go from top to bottom and back to the top so quickly you simply never know.
The Rangers were a playoff team in 2016-17 and the Blackhawks had the most points in the Western Conference. This past season? Not so much – both were in the bottom five of their conference.
The Devils finished 2016-17 last in the Eastern Conference and made the playoffs this year on the back of one player’s MVP performance.
So with the ability to go from zero to hero in today’s NHL (and vice versa), let’s optimistically look at the Islanders chances.
New York Islanders
Barry Trotz will bring a defensive-minded approach. Last year’s Caps team was a +20 goal differential. The Islanders are not the Caps, that is for certain, but the defensive scheme will bring down the goals against.
The goals for will drop too, of course. You don’t replace 84 points with two-way bottom-six players. Instead of looking at the Caps, a more apt comparison would be the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils rode Taylor Hall to the playoffs. The roster is built on a number of role players and above-average goaltending. The Devils were only a +4 goal differential team (248 GF, 244 GA) and their second leading scorer after Hall was Nico Hischier with 52 points.
They only had four players above 40 points, and six over 30 points. The Islanders had five above 40 points and eight above 30 even if you remove Tavares from the equation.
The point is this – a defensive-minded team protecting leads and riding just a few offensive talents can overachieve.
We’d all be thrilled with a goal differential matching the Devils. Scoring 16 fewer goals but letting up over 50 against would be a miracle, but responsible defense-first coaching and a talented top line can get you there.
At -32 (264 GF, 296 GA) the Islanders gave up too many shots, and too many went in. If Trotz’s system and Lehner’s talent can bring that to anywhere close to leveling off then there is hope.
Here’s what we know about the Islanders roster – it’s top-loaded with talent but bottom-loaded with role players. Let the top two lines do what they do, and let the bottom two do what they do.
Be annoying. The Islanders have so many pesky, annoying players. Even on the top lines, Beauvillier is an underrated one of them (+3 player with only 26 PIM in nearly two full seasons).
The Islanders can make opponents miserable. Sixty minutes of hits, back-checking, and a borderline-neutral-zone-trap served Lamoriello well in Jersey, but with a counter-punch that will hit hard and quickly with the top two lines they should be able to score.
Alternating offense and defense. Two lines of offense. Two lines of defense. Jab and juke, and more than a few bloody noses.
Be the team that everyone dreads playing because nothing comes easy.
There will be a new focus of no goals given away easily, with better goaltending from the additions of Mitch Korn and Robin Lehner.
Fewer third period collapses, which were better under Weight than Capuano, but putting away games remains a weakness for the Isles. The additions of veteran two-way players like Komarov and Filppula to existing players like Cizikas should limit those.
The Isles may have the same number of losses, but several of those should be overtime losses where they can secure at least the one point. Those same players will also undoubtedly improve a league-worst penalty kill.
The Islanders are also trending towards a Seidenberg-type signing as the seventh defenseman with yet again a focus on responsible defense and leadership, not a younger player who needs to learn on the job (see: Toews).
Players in contract years have added motivation to step up. Eberle, Lee, Nelson, Filppula, Kovar and Lehner have financial reasons to play harder, which can motivate some more than others.
Growth through experience – Mayfield, Pelech, Pulock, Beauvillier and Barzal are all a year more seasoned and ready to display their higher confidence.
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The Islanders may not make the playoffs (but don’t be so shocked if they do), but with the leadership and focus on team defense that Barry Trotz will employ, you can expect a more responsible team that still has top line talent to put the puck in the net.
If nothing else, teams will hate to play the Islanders because they’ll be forced to fight hard to earn their win – something that wasn’t always the case the past year.