New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello has assembled a gritty, hard-nosed roster.
In July 2017, Ross Johnston introduced himself on Long Island by throwing punches at his teammates during a prospect scrimmage.
In the annual Blue and White Scrimmage, Johnston took exception to Joshua Ho-Sang and Kieffer Bellows. To the surprise of those in attendance, he actually dropped the gloves — a rarity, considering that all the players on the ice were members of the same organization.
What a first impression that made.
In January 2018, Johnston was recalled from Bridgeport to make his NHL debut. The Islanders were one of the softest teams in the league, as they struggled to move on without Travis Hamonic and Matt Martin.
Johnston had developed a reputation as a tough-guy in the minor leagues. In 2016-17, he racked up 135 penalties in minutes — the tenth highest clip in the AHL. In the QMJHL, where he was an alternate captain, he recorded 263 penalties in minutes over a two-year span.
In the third period of his first game in the NHL, Johnston tangled with Chicago forward Ryan Hartman.
He won — resoundingly.
From then on, Johnston was inserted into the lineup on a regular basis, making 23 more appearances the rest of the season. He became an integral contributor, despite scoring just 11 points in 38 games.
Then, Lou Lamoriello took over as general manager. The old-school executive swiftly made changes to the roster, bringing in Martin, Leo Komarov, Tom Kühnhackl, Luca Sbisa and Valtteri Filppula.
The Islanders instantly became the heaviest team in the league, weighing in at an average 208.7 pounds. For reference, the league average is 199.3 pounds, according to James Mirtle of The Athletic.
The message was clear: the Islanders would no longer be pushed around.
“We’re going to be a grittier team next year, I think,” defenseman Johnn Boychuk told Arthur Staple of The Athletic prior to the season. “More sandpaper, more hard-working. I think that’s a reason for everyone to be excited.”
So far, so good.
The Islanders currently rank ninth in the league in hits and have won 75 percent of their brawls, according to hockeyfights.com. But what is most impressive isn’t what the Islanders have done. It’s what they haven’t had to do.
With so many tough guys on the ice, the Islanders don’t need to lead the league in every statistic. Rather, they just need to let other teams know who is on the other bench — and boy, do other teams know who is on the other bench.
In a league where fighting is becoming obsolete, the Islanders are proving that there is still value in keeping aggressors on the roster.
Just ask Rangers forward Cody McLeod, who was pummeled to the ice by Johnston earlier in the season.
If nothing else, it sent a message to the Rangers: you may be ahead 3-0, but we aren’t going to back down without putting up a fight.
Knock somebody over? Oh, there’s Matt Martin. Slash a guy in the shin? Oh, there’s Ross Johnston. Hit a guy from behind? Oh, there’s Scott Mayfield. The Islanders aren’t pushovers this season, that’s for sure.
For a team that is lacking in the skill department, the Islanders have used their fourth-liners to set the tempo of the game. It may not seem like much, but the Islanders continue to prove that they will not go down without a fight.
In a transition year, what more could you possibly ask for?