The New York Islanders capped off a historic regular season by securing a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The New York Islanders are far from done pertaining to shattering expectations this season.
After clinching a post-season berth at home for the first time in 17 years, those removed from the inner-circle are wondering how the Islanders got here.
It all began with Lou Lamoriello’s arrival in May of 2018. A franchise plagued with decades of mediocrity was cited as needing a deep culture change. Lamoriello cleaned house, and not even two weeks after winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, brought Barry Trotz aboard.
A top-down overhaul meant new staff, new rules, a new way of performing both at practice and in games. Then arrived July 1 and the drama that unfurled around free agency spearheaded by the Isles captain packing up his pajamas and heading north of the border.
With no leader and down a center capable of netting 30 goals and 80 points per season, the old Islanders were in trouble. If the Islanders were going to find any success, everyone knew it required a new approach.
In the wake of the news, Barry Trotz remained more than optimistic. SNY’s Islanders Point Blank captured Trotz’s thoughts following the free agency aftermath.
“I’ve talked to all the players about what I expect. We’re making some good headway,” Trotz said. “What’s been a blessing, was when John made his decision, the players texted me saying we’re going to be just fine. That’s a huge step for any organization going forward.”
On paper, the Islanders were due for a rough season.
Lamoriello introduced a rag-tag group of forwards out of the free agency shuffle including Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov and Tom Kuhnhackl. The choice to reunite long-time fan favorite Matt Martin was a welcome step until Lou decided to extend Ross Johnston for another four years on a one-way deal.
In goal, the Islanders turned to Robin Lehner, who was coming off a career-worst .908 save percentage in a full season’s sample. What looked worse was that he was penciled in as the starter, given Thomas Greiss‘s league-worst .892 save percentage from last year.
What went unnoticed at the time was that the Islanders were adapting. No longer would they be the team that needs to score themselves out of trouble, but they would follow a mantra that spelled out exactly how Lamoriello has historically built contender.
“Defense wins championships.”
Management preaching a commitment to structure had sunk in for players who were more than receptive to change following a 2017-18 regular season campaign that saw them set the worst goals-against the NHL has seen in over a decade.
On the day the Isles were set to hit the ice in Raleigh for their opener, Anders Lee was named captai, and delivered a new type of leadership — brotherhood. It’s something Matt Martin spoke in droves about to Newsday‘s Neil Best.
“I think everyone is. I think everyone feels like they’re a big part of what’s going on around there. We do it by committee . . . We always talk about it being a family, but it really is in here, and a brotherhood. Guys are battling for one another.”
Gone was the era of necessitating a response after a flurry of two, three or more goals-against. The new-look Islanders lock down their zone and net what reinforcement they need. Everyone has a role they play which contributes to overall team structure, and in return, success.
Almost immediately, Trotz’s system had revitalized a team in need of an identity.
Heading into the playoffs, the Islanders still have plenty of motivation to continue pushing. Many members of this group still have memories of the 2016 run and are aware of the lack of postseason success within the last several decades.
With how much this group was doubted in the regular season and continues to be heading into April, there’s a unique opportunity to place a firm stamp on what this group was able to accomplish.
All that remains to be determined is positioning, and potentially a division banner if the Capitals fail to be more than two points ahead of the Islanders by the time they will face each other by April 6.