Since the start of the season, the John Tavares-less New York Islanders have proven to be a resilient, well-structured team.
In October, Lauren Theisen of Deadspin wrote an article entitled, “A 2018-19 NHL Season Preview of Every Team, From Best to Islanders.”
The New York Islanders were projected to play so poorly that Theisen didn’t even bother to group them with any of the other teams. Instead, she put them in a category of their own — at the bottom of the league.
“They’re f—-d,” Theisen wrote.
As the Islanders near the midpoint of the season, it is becoming increasingly clear that Theisen’s projections are not just wrong, but completely off the mark.
Through 40 games, the Islanders are 23-13-4 — good for the first wild-card spot in a distinctly competitive Eastern Conference. The Islanders are winners of six consecutive games and nine of their last 10 contests.
Just one season after the Islanders fired their head coach and general manager, the club is on pace for 103 points — well above their mark of 80 in 2017-18.
That is without captain John Tavares, who “escaped” to Toronto this summer. That is without Jaroslav Halak and Calvin de Haan, who signed elsewhere during the free agency period. That is without a concrete stadium or a clear long-term plan.
Instead, the Islanders have been relying on an unusual mix of skilled and unskilled players, as well as the acumen of head coach Barry Trotz, who has taken the defense from 31st to 1st in goals allowed in just one season.
Remarkably, the Islanders entered the season with nearly the same players on defense — besides for de Haan, who signed a four-year deal with Carolina on July 3. The personnel may have stayed the same, but the system did not.
The Islanders have embraced Trotz’s defensive system, which has yielded immediate results. The club was described as “one of the better defensive teams in the league” by Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, who knows a thing or two about lighting the lamp.
For some, the biggest change has come in net, where the Islanders have received stellar play from Robin Lehner, and to a lesser extent, Thomas Greiss.
Since joining the Islanders, Lehner has been one of the most unlikely stories in the league. The netminder is 11-6-3 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. On Monday, he was named the NHL’s third star of the week. Writing for Elite Sports NY last week, I recounted Lehner’s remarkable journey:
“Since the summer, Lehner has been the subject of much attention. For starters, he was informed by the Buffalo Sabres that he wouldn’t be returning to the Nickel City for 2018-19. Then, he opened up about his addiction and bipolar diagnoses in an article for The Athletic, which elicited sympathy from his peers. On July 3, he signed with the New York Islanders on a one-year, $1 million contract, a far cry from his previous three-year, $6.675 million deal.”
Lehner’s resurgence is a surprise, but so is the Islanders’ ability to stay afloat offensively without Tavares.
In Tavares’ place, the Islanders have gotten contributions from a number of skilled forwards, like Mathew Barzal (12 goals and 26 assists in 40 games), Josh Bailey (8 goals and 23 assists) and Anders Lee (15 goals and 15 assists). The Islanders aren’t scoring nearly as much as they did last season, but they don’t need to.
Not only is Trotz’s system working, but the Islanders have asserted themselves as a physical powerhouse this season, winning a majority of their brawls and ranking near the top of the league in hits. When Lou Lamoriello decided to bring in a number of fourth liners this summer, he was derided as being too old to operate in the modern NHL.
It turns out that he knows what he is doing.
What the Islanders have been able to accomplish this season is unbelievable, not least because this is a club that no star player should want to play for, according to the media.
“Poor, poor Mathew Barzal,” Theisen wrote about the 21-year-old All-Star forward. “[N]ow the face of the franchise is gone, and suddenly he’s the guy needing to carry the exhausting burden of every sad Islanders fan’s hopes and dreams.”
John Matisz of The Score harps on a similar point. “It is an absolute shame John Tavares was toiling away on Long Island for so many years,” he tweeted. “He’s finally unleashed and it’s quite something.”
If only Tavares was currently on Long Island, where he could play for Stanley Cup winning head coach Barry Trotz and Hall of Fame executive Lou Lamoriello. The Islanders completely restructured their front office and coaching staff over the summer, and it is paying dividends.
The Islanders are currently in the thick of the playoff hunt, and as Arthur Staple of The Athletic notes, they will be buyers — not sellers — before the trade deadline.
What a stunning turnaround for the team picked to finish last in the league by members of the media prior to the season.