New York Islanders Anders Lee
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The New York Islanders weren’t expected to compete for the postseason, but don’t tell that to the team’s veterans, who are determined to prove the skeptics wrong.

Justin Weiss

Johnny Boychuk wasn’t mincing words when he told Arthur Staple of The Athletic prior to the season that the New York Islanders would be competitive in 2018-19.

“I’ve already seen people pegging us as being in the bottom. That’s just a slap in the face when I see it,” he told Staple. “Our team is really good. I think we’re going to show them that we are a good team.”

Just one-third of the way into the season, the Islanders are proving that they are playing with a chip on their shoulders — regardless of how they fare the rest of the way.

Through 29 games, the Islanders are 14-11-4, good for third place in the Metropolitan Division. On Oct. 3, Laura Theisen wrote an article for Deadspin entitled, “A 2018-19 NHL Season Preview of Every Team, From Best to Islanders.” That was two months ago … now, the Islanders are ranked 14th on CBS Sports’ weekly power rankings.

“I’ve never really worried too much about what’s being said,” Josh Bailey told Staple in that same article (subscription). “It’s about your teammates, the organization, and your fans as well.”

Ever since ex-captain John Tavares bolted to Toronto on July 1, the national media has made it a habit of admonishing the Islanders as a second-rate club. But while the Islanders lost their most talented playmaker on the opening day of free agency, they gained in two regards: professionalism and identity.

Over the years, the Islanders have consistently played second fiddle to the team on the other side of the river. The Rangers are the ‘Original 6’ club that plays its games out of Madison Square Garden, the ‘mecca’ of the sporting universe. The Islanders are the scrappy franchise from the suburbs, remembered more for their ‘fisherman’ logo than for their four consecutive Stanley Cups in the 1980s.

When the late Charles Wang sold the team to Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin in August 2014, this feeling of ineptitude was on everybody’s mind. So when the new owners hired veteran executive Lou Lamoriello to run the team’s hockey operations in May of this year, it should have signaled something greater than any specific personnel change: the Islanders are done playing around.

When, one month later, the Islanders hired Stanley Cup winning coach Barry Trotz to become the new bench boss, the media was still dwelling on Tavares’ departure. This was a big mistake. Competitors come and go; a team’s identity is crafted by the people on top. In this case, the Islanders were bringing in two consummate professionals with lengthy résumés. Forget the fancy sabermetrics and views of the experts; the Islanders were finally a team with structure from top-to-bottom.

New York Islanders
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In the summer, the Islanders noticeably refrained from making any big splashes in free agency. Rather, they chose to make two selections in both the first and second rounds of the draft. Perhaps adhering to his antiquated moniker, Lamoriello signed a number of fourth line skaters to professional contracts. In July, many pundits, myself included, publicly questioned Lamoriello for his decision to bring in Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin, three highly-priced checkers.

If the first two months of the season serve as an indication of what is to come, then the Islanders found the backbone of their team in free agency. These big-money signings — along with Ross Johnston, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck and Tom Kühnhackl — have been relentless on the forecheck, furious along the boards and instrumental in setting the tone of the game, and probably the season.

Even in a rebuilding year, the Islanders will not just gently go away.

For Boychuk, this was obvious even before the season began. “We’re going to be a grittier team next year, I think. More sandpaper, more hard-working. I think that’s a reason for everyone to be excited.”

The sudden turnaround has caught the eye of members of the national media, but they still aren’t sold on them being a playoff team. “I love the Islanders as a story,” ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan wrote in early November. “I hesitate to say they are a playoff team for a few reasons.” Kaplan proceeded to list the team’s exceptionally high shooting percentage (it has since come back down) and notably low Corsi percentage (to be expected with Lamoriello at the helm) as reasons for her doubt.

Her skepticism may well turn out to be warranted. But if the Islanders have their way, it won’t be because they didn’t put up a fight.

Justin Weiss is a staff editor at Elite Sports New York, where he covers the New York Islanders and Brooklyn Cyclones. In 2016, he received a Quill Award for Freelance Journalism. He has written for the Long Island Herald, FanSided and YardBarker.