The secret to the New York Islanders remarkable turn-around in goal lies within the way the game has been shaped by the success of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.
The duration of how long the New York Islanders can stay in the postseason this season (unless they fall off a proverbial cliff) will largely be decided by whoever is in net.
Throughout the 2018-19 season, both Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have propelled themselves to the upper-echelon of nearly every goaltending stat. Both Mitch Korn and Piero Greco deserve every ounce of credit they get, as do both netminders. But neither one’s success occurs without the other.
For years, the Islanders have seen first-hand what a flawed goaltending tandem can do.
In 2014-15, Chad Johnson was so unreliable the Islanders nearly rode Halak into the ground with a career-high 59 starts. The following season, Greiss had to carry the weight when Halak subsequently went down with a groin injury.
A couple years back in 2016-17 the Islanders did ride Greiss into the ground as a lack of trust in J.F. Berube, and there’s nothing that needs to be said about the 2017-18 season.
Finally, after decades of weighted tandems, the Islanders have found equilibrium in net.
As the NHL continues to trend towards youth, speed and elite skill, goaltenders are slowly adjusting to the trend of how a winning formula is beginning to develop — coaches will roll with the hot hand.
At the time, it was the highest amount of salary invested in a tandem in the NHL for goaltending. In 2015-16, when the Stars won the Central Division, they did it very much in spite of Lehtonen’s .906 and Niemi’s .905 save percentage.
The New York Islanders, led by the guide of their new development staff have perfected this formula, but other teams have taken notice and found success in their own right.
This past offseason, the Boston Bruins brought in former-Islander Jaroslav Halak to ease the pressure off Tuukka Rask as the 1A in goal. This was put to the test almost immediately, as Rask endured struggles early on in November and undertook a personal leave of absence.
Halak responded to the situation by posting the highest save percentage in the NHL for most of the first half of the season. Though he’s come down to a more realistic average at .923, it’s nothing to bat an eye at. Better yet, Halak has only played 30 games so far this season to Rask’s 32.
At this point last season, Halak had played 42 games.
The incredible success the Tampa Bay Lightning are riding this season has foreshadowed how much goaltender Louis Domingue has turned around in his last 14 games with a 13-1-0 record, a personal 10-game winning streak and a .916 save percentage.
Save percentage leaders today (min. 20 games played). Last season Lehner was 37th (.908) and Greiss was 54th (.892) pic.twitter.com/3WWKhyte42
— Adam Kimelman (@NHLAdamK) February 18, 2019
Since Dec. 17th/18th
Thomas Greiss: 10 GP, 6-2-1, .954 save percentage.
Robin Lehner: 18 GP, 14-3-1, .943 save percentage.
The reason it's working so well is they're a TANDEM. 'Backup' goaltenders are becoming a bigger part of winning, the #isles have mastered the 1/1A system.
— Matt Di Giacomo (@mdigiacESNY) February 19, 2019
At the beginning of the season, Robin Lehner debuted for the Islanders with a 3-0 shutout win in Brooklyn. Though it was a sign of things to come, success had to wait a little longer. Lehner managed just a 3-5-1 record with a .895 save percentage in the following 10 games.
During that time, Thomas Greiss went 6-2-1 in 11 games played with a .925 save percentage.
The NHL has seen drastic evolution through the last several seasons and especially so with this season’s change in goaltending equipment size.
Keeping the designated playoff goaltender fresh throughout the regular season has been a trend on Stanley Cup-winning teams since the Pittsburgh Penguins discovered Matt Murray in 2015. (See also the 2018 Washington Capitals’ tandem of Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer.)
In a rapidly evolving NHL, this concept is making its’ way firmly into the culture of winning in the NHL and shows no signs of going away.