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Watling: Despite similar roster, the Islanders are far superior to last year’s club

After sweeping three straight games against the Buffalo Sabres, the Islanders sit atop a loaded East division by two points over the Washington Capitals, who have a game in hand. At roughly this point last year, when the NHL went on pause, the Isles were badly struggling, just holding the final wild-card spot via points percentage. While both teams look nearly identical in terms of roster construction, this year’s squad looks way more impressive, even in comparison to the team that entered the Toronto bubble.

When teams see an astonishing change in play — for better or worse, with little roster turnover — it typically stems from goaltending or special teams.

The Islanders? it’s a bit different.

2019-20 saw the Isles place as the ninth-best goals-against average at just 2.79. This season, they are third-best at 2.20. The difference is not crazy significant. 

Special teams wise, the change has been dramatic. On the man advantage, the Isles are converting at an impressive 22.7% rate this season compared to low 17.3% a season ago. An increase as such has result in roughly one more power-play goal every six games. The penalty kill has improved too, giving up roughly one fewer goal every 10 games. 

Over an 82-game season, this would improve the Islanders goal differential by 20, a seemingly large number no doubt. But when you break it down, they would still be a wild card team as those 20 goals or 17 during last season’s shortened campaign, probably would not equate to five points in the standings. Which would tie the Islanders with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The real major distinction has been the production on offense.

The Islanders have skyrocketed in terms of their expected goals for percentage (xGF). Prior to this year, 20th in the league (49.22%) was their ranking. 2021? They’re fourth at a rate of 57.03%.

Okay, problem solved. The solution is pretty obvious — when you score more, you win more.

But, let’s take a deeper look into who the key factors are in this surge to being a contender.

1. Mathew Barzal Finds a New Gear

Last year was a productive one for the Islanders’ star center, as he scored 60 points in 62 games. If it were a full season, he would have scored 72 points, the same pace he is on this season.

The biggest difference? Barzal’s goal scoring.

Barzal is taking 0.1 more shots per game through the team’s 25 games, but scoring at a much higher clip. His 1.12 goals per 60 minutes (GF/60) of 1.12 is significantly higher than last year’s 0.84. Barzal’s nine goals are just ten off of his 68-game total from last year. And if this season was never shortened, Barzal is expected to score 10 more goals this season than last.

Barzal is clicking on all cylinders this season, finding high-quality shots and firing them home. His speed and creativity have transformed beyond flashy passes, as seen by his latest show-stopping play.

He has finally reached a new level of stardom, something that could propel this Islanders team to new heights.

2. Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee Return to Form

Outside of Barzal and Brock Nelson, last year’s offense was sluggish. The team was in need of a 35-plus goal scorer, and they just didn’t have one. Lee had one of his more mediocre seasons in 2019-20 and 2018-19, where he could not eclipse 30 goals in either season.

Now, Lee leads the Isles in goals with 12, which at this pace would amount to a 39-goal rate if it were a full slate in the regular season. 

Lee turning it around can be seen in his GF/60, which improved from 0.96 to 1.6. The increase has reinvigorated Lee’s career and at 30 years of age, a resurgence was necessary. Father Time is undefeated, and Lee may only have a few more seasons until he is relegated to a veteran leader, as opposed to a top-scoring threat.

Eberle is another cog in the machine who’s been terrific. He is on pace for 30 goals which would be his highest total as an Islander. Last year, Eberle struggled significantly, scoring just 16 goals. The career 13.2% shooter, saw his percentage dip to 11.8%. While it is not a huge drop-off, his play just did not scream, “I am a top-line winger.” To wrap things up, his GF/60 was just 0.93, and this year it sits at 1.26, according to Natural Stat Trick.

As a top-six forward, Eberle desperately needs to score. The Isles are built on rolling four lines and to do that, they need an equitable number of goals from their top six, to hopefully take the load off of the fourth line that might be playing over its head offensively.

Another massive benefit to this new-look team is the third line, which might actually be its best since Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov called it home a few years back.

3.  The Emergence of a Legitimate Third Line

The widest gap between this year’s team and last might be the third line.

Last season’s line — headlined by Leo Komarov, Derick Brassard and Michael Dal Colle — was awful to say the least. It was stagnant, barely had an actual center, and was not even that great defensively. The black hole of a line was miserable to watch and part of the reason why the Islanders just could not keep up with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference finals.

The Bolts played with blazing speed and more skill than the Isles could sniff but that could change this season. The reformed third line has a real talent on it, a threat to score at any time in the game. 

Consisting of Oliver Wahlstrom, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Dal Colle, this season’s trio can score with the best of them.

Wahlstrom has quietly turned into a tremendous NHL player. 

“I’ve fallen in love with the details in my game,” Wahlstrom said last week. “It’s bringing more enjoyment to my game. I’m thinking less about production, just focusing on the details.”

It is not just scoring goals for Wahlstrom, although he has buried four points in his last five games. In terms of offensive production, Wahlstrom blows Komorav out of the water, who had just four goals all of last year. Pageau is arguably the Islanders’ most versatile player and that might be an understatement. The last of the trio is a carry-over from last season, but Dal Colle has transformed his career as a solid grinder in the corners.

“[Dal Colle] is changing his mindset,” Barry Trotz said. “He’s just thinking about playing well and working, and some of those natural skills he has will come out.”

While the Islanders are first in the East at the moment, their sights could be set much higher.

A Stanley Cup appearance perhaps? Yes.

This team is that good. The goaltending and D are arguably the best in the NHL, or at least on par with who is considered to be it.

Trotz is a Hall of Fame caliber coach, and knows how to win. So it is time to start expecting it after how much of a change we’ve seen between last year’s squad and the one rolling right now.

 

Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattWatling99

 

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