A lot has changed for the Islanders franchise over the past few years. Since Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz have come on board, the Isles have turned into a legit Stanley Cup contender and one of the stingiest teams in the NHL. While there has been some roster turnover and obvious changes in team structure, the most important changes have come from players left over from the previous regime. The improvement of these long-time Islanders has propelled the franchise back to respectability.
With Lamoriello complementing the evolution of Brock Nelson earlier this week, it got me thinking, who are the most improved Islanders since 2018?
The order can certainly be debated, but I present my official, Top-5 most improved Islanders since 2018. Let’s begin.
Number 5: Mathew Barzal
Now, there is no doubt that Barzal was a budding superstar before Lamoriello or Trotz got here. However, the progression in Barzal’s game has propelled him to the game’s elite even faster than most thought. Trotz has committed to teaching Barzal how to play a 200-foot game and become a dynamic two-way centerman. Additionally, getting Barzal comfortable with not having the puck on his stick at all times has made the Isles’ centerman even more dangerous.
“He always wants the puck; the good players do. They want to carry it and have it a lot, but he’s willing to give it up more and willing to get it back,” Trotz said earlier this season. “Mathew’s one of those guys with that tremendous speed like Mackinnon and McDavid. When they give it up and get it back, they’re almost unstoppable. That’s where Mathew’s game has grown the most, the offensive stuff without the puck,” Trotz continued.
With speed like this, just get him the puck and get out of the way.
— NHL (@NHL) October 19, 2020
Number 4: Nick Leddy
Leddy’s Isles career can be considered a rollercoaster. His first few seasons he was a revelation. He and Johnny Boychuk led the defense through some lean years, but Leddy’s defensive game dropped off dramatically after 2016. It seemed as though Leddy lost a step and it was hurting his play in his own end. Coming off his worst year as a pro in 2018 when he was a team worst minus-42, Isles fans were wondering what Leddy had left in the tank. Well, Barry Trotz has transformed him back into the player he once was, and he’s become an indispensable part of the Isles defense.
While his point totals still haven’t regressed back to what they were early in his Isles tenure, his play in his own end has improved dramatically and there is no doubting his importance to the club. There was speculation after last year the Isles might want to move his salary, but after the trade of Devon Toews, it became clear how valued Nick Leddy is to Trotz and the Islanders.
Plus, he always seems to score the timely goals…
— MSG Networks (@MSGNetworks) April 11, 2019
Number 3: Ryan Pulock
He could easily slot in at number one but there have been so many improved Islanders it’s tough to narrow down. Pulock has become one of the best all-around defensemen in the entire league. The big-bodied D-man has always had the tools and has shown flashes, but it wasn’t until Trotz got here that Isles fans have seen him put it together. Everybody knows about his booming shot, clocked in at 105 mph, but his play in his own end has been taken to another level. He and Adam Pelech (more on him in a moment) have become one of the best defensive pairs in the league while playing against some of the toughest competition the NHL has to offer. He is so calm in his own end and uses his size to his advantage to knock opponents of the puck with ease which allows him to diffuse scoring chances before they become an issue. While he’s been snakebit on offense this season, that hasn’t deterred his defensive play and certainly hasn’t been a concern for his coach.
“Pully’s probably played his best, it’s his best season by far for me the way he’s defended and his decision making and all that,” Trotz said after Pulock’s game winner on Sunday.
Hopefully Sunday’s winner will open the floodgates for Pulock who has to have one of the hardest wristers in the league…
Ryan Pulock with his 1st goal of the year to win it!!!
— Isles on MSG+ (@IslesMSGN) April 12, 2021
Number 2: Brock Nelson
Hard to believe Brock is one of the longest tenured Isles at this point, but the Minnesota native is approaching 600 games with the franchise and is improving with each passing season. He used to frustrate Isles fans by turning into Mike Bossy in October and then not being seen again til the end of the season. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case as Brock has become one of the Isles most consistent scoring threats.
“Brock has consistently gotten better since the day I got here. He gets all the hard matchups, and despite that he leads us in goals. He still has a certain amount he can grow and get better,” Lamoriello said on Tuesday.
He also has one of the more underrated wrist shots in the league as the Flyers are all too familiar with…
Top shelf. Next question. That's your Shot of the Night from Brock Nelson. #StanleyCup
— NHL (@NHL) August 31, 2020
Number 1: Adam Pelech
The argument can be made for Pulock and Nelson to take the top spot but for my money, Adam Pelech is the most improved Islander.
When former g.m. Garth Snow signed Pelech to a four-year, $6.4M contract extension in July of 2017, fans were scratching their heads. He had only played 53 career games up to that point and was a minus-6 with 12 career points. Now, fans can look back and thank Snow for that gift of a contract.
Pelech, has become one of the toughest shut down defensemen in the entire league. His hockey instincts, timely poke checks and poise in his own end have transformed him into one of the league’s best. He and Pulock have for the last two seasons been one of the NHL’s most consistent top pairs and if last year’s playoff run was any indication, the Isles cannot live without Pelech. Trotz thinks this is just the beginning for Pelech too which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.
“He’s just hitting his stride. He’s getting more and more reps so all those instincts that make him a good defender are getting acutely sharp,” Trotz said.
The last part of Pelech’s evolution is his offensive game, which Trotz doesn’t think is that far behind.
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) September 12, 2020
“I think you’re starting to see that side of his game a bit more. You see him getting up on the rush more, he’s more comfortable with that,” said Trotz.
If Pelech is going to add offense to his game… lookout NHL.
Comment below who you think should be in the Top 5!
Follow Ethan on Twitter @egreenberg99