Heading into the 2018-19 season a number of questions surround the New York Islanders. What are the five pressing questions for next season?
A ton of questions are swirling around the New York Islanders these days. That’s to be expected when a franchise goes through the sort of overhaul the Islanders went through over the last three months.
Since April the following has taken place. In comes world class management such as Lou Lamoriello to oversee the Isles hockey operations, and Barry Trotz to be the teams the first coach with NHL experience and a Stanley Cup ring since Al Arbour retired in 1994.
Out went world class talent in John Tavares to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. And in his wake came a torrent of players to fill an already crowded Islanders bottom six.
With all that change, what exactly are the New York Islanders going to be like in 2018-19? Is the big question we all have on our minds right now. But within that one question are a number of smaller questions.
Questions like: will there be room on this roster for the talented youth in the Isles system ready for the NHL like Josh Ho-Sang or Kieffer Bellows? Or can Mathew Barzal step up and be that number one center for the Islanders?
What are the five biggest questions on New York Islanders fans minds as the franchise transitions from the 12-year Garth rebuild and the Tavares-era, to an era where the Islanders are a regular functioning NHL franchise?
Will There Be Room for Youth
Look at the New York Islanders roster. They have players for every position. In fact, they have too many players for certain positions already. And that’s without the likes of Josh Ho-Sang and Kieffer Bellows on the roster. Both players are absolutely ready for the NHL.
In Ho-Sang’s short time in the NHL, 42 games across two seasons, he’s been nothing short of electric with the puck. He’s one of the teams better puck carriers. And he’s a great passer and setup man. And he’s only played 42 NHL games since being drafted in 2014.
Bellows is another Isles prospects who are ready for the next step. Bellows left the NCAA and joined the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL so he could play more in order get ready for the NHL. With 74 points in 56 games, he seems ready.
But where could either wingers slot into the New York Islanders roster? The Isles top six is already stacked with Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier, and Josh Bailey. And the bottom six isn’t any less spacious.
The third line left-wing and right-wing position could be filled by any combination of Andrew Ladd, Leo Komarov, Brock Nelson/Jan Kovar. So where are either Ho-Sang or Bellows supposed to fit in this mix?
I think we can agree that a year in the AHL for Kieffer Bellows won’t be a bad thing for his career. Unless Ho-Sang has a flat training camp he should be playing in the NHL in 2018-19. I just don’t see how, unless some of these players spots are more fluid than we believe.
Can Robin Lehner Be Good?
The theme for the 2018-19 New York Islanders season is “show me what you got”. A motto that perfectly applies to Islanders goalie Robin Lehner. Signed to a single year $1.5 million deal, he has to prove he can still be a starter or that he belongs in the NHL.
Last season Lehner had a terrible 3.01 GAA and .908 SV% in 53 games played (50 starts) for the Buffalo Sabres. To be fair to Lehner, that was a better stat line that the Isles former number one keeper, Jaroslav Halak. Halak held a 3.19 GAA and .908SV% last season.
The Islanders didn’t being Lehner in to be better than Halak at his worst. They brought Lehner in to try and get a goalie that can put up above average numbers in the NHL. Between 2015-16 and 2016-17 Lehner averaged 2.54 GAA and .922SV% for the Buffalo Sabres.
With Mitch Korn the Islanders will be able to surround Lehner with one of the best goalie minds in the business. Hopefully Lehner, who’s known as a bit of a hot head, can take the set back given to him by his former team and push forward with Korn to guide him.
The Islanders will play their part to help Lehner succeed, but will Lehner be able to reciprocate and play his part. If Lehner can get back to that .920SV% goalie, the Islanders immediately give themselves a great chance to make some noise in the Metropolitan Division this season.
How will Josh Bailey be without John Tavares?
For the past two years, Josh Bailey has played alongside John Tavares on the right side. The line had become one of the more successful top units in the game before JT decided to jump ship when the team needed him most.
Bails had a career year in 2017-2018 putting up 71 points (18 goals, 53 assists). The question for him is he going to be able to replicate his success with Tavares gone.
He will have a new center, most likely on the second line. It could be a few different guys actually. Any of Valtteri Filppula, Jan Kovar or Brock Nelson can be the center of the Isles second unit this year.
If Bailey keeps one consistent he’ll be okay, and that’s Anders Lee. Yes, Tavares was the leader of that line but Lee and Bailey still worked phenomenally together. Lee himself is a 40 goal scorer so that will be someone who could benefit from the pass-first mentality of Josh Bailey.
To expect Bailey to put up 70 points again is probably unfair to him. If he is in the 50-60 point range at $5 million you are getting fine value from him. There’s no guarantee that Bailey is the same player without Tavares, we found that from his wowy numbers from Corsica.
The Isles are just going to cross their fingers that he’s the player of 2016-2018 and there’s no regression to 30 point Josh Bailey of years past.
Can the fourth line fly again?
Matt Martin is back, so will we see a reunion of the “best fourth line in hockey”? The last time he was here was 2015-2016 when all three had career years production wise. Matt Martin had 19 points that year. It was the only year he put up double-digit goals.
Then, Cal Clutterbuck also had 15 goals and 23 points. It was the last time he eclipsed double-digit goals and the second highest goal total of his career. He also seemed to have a knack for scoring clutch goals that season. He’s been nonexistent since.
Casey Cizikas had 29 points that year while registering a career high of 154 hits. It was the most productive year those three had playing together. Can they re-create it?
One thing’s for sure they’re certainly a more expensive fourth line combining for $9.25 million against the cap this year. On top of that, they’re also 27, 31 and 29 years of age. How much longer can they keep their physical style of play going?
With Leo Komarov and Tom Kuhnackl in the mix as well, there’s no guarantee all these guys play together on the fourth line anyway. The Islanders have so many depth forwards right now it’s almost hard to imagine a scenario where this line flourishes like it once did.
Were the defensive problems just scheme issues?
Last year the Islanders had legitimately the worst defense in the league. 296 times the opposing team found the back of the net. All year long fans debated whether it was the defensemen or the goalie that was at fault, similar to the famous chicken or the egg debate.
Regardless, the defense wasn’t very good. Especially with Calvin de Haan injured, Travis Hamonic traded away and Johnny Boychuk injured again. The Isles didn’t necessarily address the issues though.
They head into this year with essentially the same defense, just no de Haan, but this time there’s a new coach. Barry Trotz will man the bench for the Islanders this year and it may just be enough to fix things.
The defensive plan last year was nonexistent. Doug Weight ran an offense heavy system. That won’t fly with Barry Trotz.
Trotz will implement a defensive first system. The Capitals allowed just 239 goals last year. Will the Islanders be able to reduce the numbers of goals allowed by just a coaching change with essentially the same players? We’ll have to wait and see in 2018-2019 but that’s the plan the Islanders are going with.