Who expected the New York Islanders to go six games deep into the Eastern Conference Final? The short answer: Only Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz.
It was a season of ups and downs for the Islanders, from the 17-game point streak to sub .500 hockey the rest of the way; there were a ton of question marks going into the bubble on July 26th.
However, healthy and recovered, the Isles showed us who they really were when the Stanley Cup Qualifiers began. And a deep run in the playoffs should have fans excited moving forward.
Going back to the historic point streak, it seemed this team had something special brewing in the locker room. Trotz, coming off a Jack Adams award-winning season, picked up right where he left off, getting the most out of his players. The Islanders were a top dog in not only the Metropolitan Division, but the Eastern Conference.
— SiriusXM NHL Network Radio (@SiriusXMNHL) November 24, 2019
That was until a few injuries here, a few scoring droughts there, and the Isles barely limped in to March above .500. Along the way, they managed to maintain their status as one of the best at keeping their puck out of the net (just 190 goals against in 68 games played), but it was evident they lacked a pure scorer and a successful power play.
Despite what was missing, there were a few revelations prior to the NHL pause due to the world pandemic. Brock Nelson was surely on his way to his first 30-goal season, finding consistency in his game. Anthony Beauvillier had himself a career year before his breakout playoff performance. Ryan Pulock finally started to look like the team’s number-one defenseman. And some of their youth like Noah Dobson, Kieffer Bellows, and Oliver Wahlstrom made some noise, and appear close to taking the next step.
The Islanders faced adversity throughout much of the year trying to maintain injuries and looking for the right chemistry among those who were healthy. One of the most important things that happened this season though was that Isles fans found out that Lamoriello is not afraid to pay at the trade deadline for a team need. Andy Greene and J.G. Pageau were brought in to fill a hole on the blue line (at the time) and a hole at the third-line center.
Greene and Pageau’s start with the Islanders was great for each player on a personal level, but the team stumbled into the NHL pause as a whole. Fast forward to Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the club can truly see what they received in both players, as each has had monumental roles in the lineup. They proved they were well worth their price. Pageau has a six-year contract, so we know he’ll wear an Islander sweater for at least the next six seasons, but Greene’s future is undetermined.
J.G. Pageau 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/hJTZpzF2Vx
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) August 4, 2020
While in the bubble, we saw many storylines unfold. One of the bigger storylines was Ilya Sorokin.
Sorokin signed his one-year, entry-level deal with the organization and then extended another year to play in the 2020-21 season, whenever that may be. The decorated Russian netminder met the Islanders in the bubble and gained a plethora of experience on and off the ice. Getting to be with his teammates, and a playoff environment on a deep run is a major benefit for the young netminders’ career.
“He’s awesome,” said Michael Dal Colle, who has primarily worked with the secondary practice group of reserves that includes Sorokin. “He’s a really hard-working guy. When he got here, obviously he didn’t really know anyone. He’s worked a lot off-ice, on his English. He’s adjusted really well and he works hard in practice.”
In the midst of all that excitement, the Islanders’ new arena at Belmont was finally named, the “UBS Arena,” but it’ll be better known to fans as “The Stable.” The franchise’s new home will be state of the art, and one of the best across all major sports.
We then saw another level out of the second line in Nelson, Beauvillier, and Josh Bailey.
Bailey led the Islanders in points in the bubble and made quite a few head-turning plays that had his detractors questioning their motives. Nelson continued his consistency in scoring and stepped up in big moments scoring timely goals. And Beauvillier? He showed off his speed and skill while tying Nelson for the team lead in goals (9) while in the bubble. It’s quite possible the Islanders have another Mathew Barzal level player in Beauvillier, the jury is still out on that.
Anthony Beauvillier has 9-5—14 in 19 GP this postseason. Only three @NYIslanders players have reached double-digit goals in a single postseason at the age of 23 or younger: Bryan Trottier (12 in 1980), Mike Bossy (10 in 1980) and Brent Sutter (10 in 1983). #NHLStats #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/SSw8Nsj036
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) September 13, 2020
“Lamoriello took home the Jim Gregory Award as top GM, ostensibly for the Greene and Pageau deals, but mostly for hiring Trotz two years ago and finding a coach who believes in the same team-first, we-over-me values as he has for four decades in the NHL,” said Staple.
Lamoriello received the award in the midst of a run at the Cup, and he earned the award deservingly so. He put together a roster of not the best players but the right players, and truly helped shape a culture of winning, and playing for each other in the locker room.
“This team, as I said to them, this is the most resilient team I’ve coached and I’ve coached for a long time,” Trotz said. “You don’t always do it your first crack at it, that’s why you have to go back. You have to do it again until you climb that mountain. We got fairly close and we could see the mountain top, but we never got to the mountain top.”
The world finally got to see what the Islanders’ defense was really made of too after months of charts and graphs saying “they can’t keep this up.” Adam Pelech is finally being recognized as one of the NHL’s most criminally underrated defenseman (don’t worry, we thought so too, we just got there quicker). It was evident how much the Islanders struggled with him out of the lineup and it was even clearer how valuable Pelech is when on the ice.
Whether or not he will be back with the team remains to be seen, but the wisdom of Mitch Korn and Piero Greco presented itself once again. The Isles were confident with whoever was between the pipes. Both Semyon Varlamov and Griess made their own impact when called upon. Everyone should expect that trend to continue with Korn and Greco in control of the Islanders’ goaltending situation.
What the Islanders did over the past month and a half was special. From a ping pong tournament to six games in the Eastern Conference Final, this group created a brotherhood, a bond unlike most in the NHL.
“This group loves to hang out together, this group are best friends,” Trotz said. “You don’t see these three guys go with these three guys, everybody is intermingled. It’s really helped.”
Be proud of what the Islanders did while in the bubble. They bonded, they learned, and they overcame adversity which stared them down on multiple occasions.
#Isles Anders Lee: "I can't speak volumes more of this group."
— Christian Arnold (@C_Arnold01) September 18, 2020
The Islanders now exit the bubble for what is sure to be a short, yet crazy offseason. However, their memory will be the opposite, and they will come back hungrier.
The 2020-21 NHL season is a short time away, and you bet Trotz will have his guys ready. No matter who they might be.
Follow me on Twitter at @JamesNicholsNYI