The New York Islanders were supposed to flounder without the services of John Tavares, the team’s franchise center who left to sign a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer. Yet under the leadership of new coach Barry Trotz, the team is succeeding beyond almost everyone’s expectations.
“It feels very similar to the first year [in Washington],” Trotz told Steve Whyno of the Associated Press. “We were building something. We started with the structure and trying to make every moment count, the accountability, how we play, professionalism — all those things that make a pro athlete on and off the ice. We try to involve that with our organization as we did [in Washington]. They’ve carried it on to the Stanley Cup, and we’re in the infancy stages.”
More like the toddler or tween stage. The Islanders lead the Metropolitan Division at the all-star break with a 29-15-5 (63 points) record and have already produced two five-game win streaks and a six-game win streak this season, with their younger players, like 21-year-old reigning rookie of the year Mathew Barzal, stepping up their game.
Barzal has emerged as a two-way player producing almost a point per contest (45 points in 49 games) and captain Anders Lee is on pace for his third straight 30-goal season. Center Brock Nelson has almost as many goals scored in 2018-19 (16) as he did all of last season (19) and veterans Valtteri Filppula and Matt Martin have provided solid production among the bottom-six forwards.
Trotz has no doubt enjoyed seeing his third line, anchored by Filppula and Leo Komarov. outscore opponents 20 to 10 at even strength and his fourth line of Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas, who already has exceed his career high with 11 goals, outscore opponents 11 to 7 with a whopping 61-to-33 edge in high-danger scoring chances. That commitment to shot quality is something Trotz preached during his time in Washington and it allows the team to exceed expectations without the usual apprehension of an upcoming regression. For example, according to the metric PDO, a proxy for scoring luck, the Capitals were considered to be the third-most fortunate team in terms of bounces going their way last year. Some even expected them to collapse as a result. They didn’t, of course, and instead went on to win the Stanley Cup. This year’s Islanders have the second-highest PDO yet shouldn’t be considered ripe for a fall, either.
Part of that reasoning stems from their defensive improvement. New York yielded a league-high rate of 31 even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes last season but have since trimmed that down to 27 per 60 minutes in 2018-19 (11th). That’s helped lighten the load on the goaltenders, who are thriving under Trotz and Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn.
Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have stopped 1,369 of 1,479 shots faced combined for a .926 save percentage with five shutouts and 31 quality starts (games with an above-average save rate). Lehner heads into the break as the NHL’s player of the week after going 3-0 with a .970 save percentage (65 of 67) and 0.67 goals-against average. The duo has allowed 118 goals against in 2018-19, the fewest in the NHL, helping the Islanders make a complete turnaround from last season when they allowed a league-high 293 goals against, the most by a team since 2007.
There is room for improvement. The team’s power play ranks 24th in efficiency (24 for 144, 17 percent) and the penalty kill can be cringe-worthy at times (111 for 141, 79 percent, 22nd) due to a high-volume of scoring chances against (61 per 60 minutes, second-highest this season).
Still, even with those shortcomings, this is a team that can contend in the second half of the season.
“I think the confidence has always been there,” Clutterbuck told Andrew Gross of the Daily News after a 2-0 victory against the Capitals last week. “Maybe it’s a reaffirmation as far as the storytellers go. But for us, we’ve always kind of believed. There’s still a long way to go.”
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