Looking back at last season, how impactful the goaltending played a part in the New York Islanders’ success can’t be denied.
The club’s one-two punch, Masterton winner and Vezina finalist Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, were sensational all year long. They were crucial in the team’s rise in the Metropolitan Division, their remarkable defensive turnaround from the prior season, and a major reason why the Islanders made it to Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Robin Lehner is now gone, signing with the Chicago Blackhawks on the first day of free agency. In his place, Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov, 31, was signed to a four-year, $20 million contract to re-establish himself as a top starter in the NHL and hopefully continue the same winning formula the Isles had last year.
Ever since Varlamov signed, and because of the questionable contract g.m. Lou Lamoriello awarded him, he’s received all the fanfare from the fans and the media. All that hoopla has basically left his counterpart, Greiss, in the background. It shouldn’t be that way because Varlamov just got here while Greiss has been here since 2015. Plus, the Isles don’t have the same tremendous season they had last year without Greiss.
After he came into 2018-19 coming off the worst campaign of his career, Greiss looked like a different goalie under the tutelage of goalie guru Mitch Korn and coach Piero Greco; some of that change can also be attributed to the new defensive structure instilled by head coach Barry Trotz. New system aside, Greiss was fantastic in his own right. The 33-year-old posted 23 wins in 43 starts — tying his mark from 2015-16, three less than his career-high of 26 wins — and sported his best goals-against average since turning pro (2.28). Greiss was so good that he, and Lehner, were acknowledged for their excellent seasons with the William M. Jennings Trophy — the award given to the goaltender(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it based on regular-season play.
— Eyes on Isles (@eyesonislesFS) March 21, 2019
With his confidence fully restored and the new season drawing closer, Greiss building off last year is key for the Islanders to maintain their winning ways.
Now that’s not saying he’s going to have to stand on his head, but the Isles will need Greiss to be just as good as he was a year ago. Making little alteration to their roster this offseason, adding little offensively while the rest of the Metropolitan Division got stronger offensively, only makes Greiss more valuable. Those improved forward groups are going to pose a new challenge for Greiss. Also, teams now know what to expect from the Islanders defensively, and the thought of Greiss and Varlamov only allowing one or two goals a game every single night, seems less likely.
However Trotz decides, it’s assumed Greiss will be in a similar to the one he played last season — start or be the 1B to Varlamov’s 1A. But there are other advantages that work in his favor for him to have another great season. For one, Greiss is in a contract year.
2019-20 marks the final year of Greiss’ three-year, $10 million contract that he signed back in January 2017; it will probably be his last in an Islander uniform, depending on if prospect Ilya Sorokin comes over next summer. Knowing that, and he’s essentially playing for what might be his last NHL contract — Greiss turns 34 in January — should provide even more motivation to re-create his fantastic campaign from last season.
Greiss will have the benefit of now being adjusted to the type of the system the team employs defensively. Several times last year, it almost looked to easy for Greiss when he was in net because of how well his d-men played in front of him. Now that the team is entering the second year with the same defensive mindset, Greiss should be able to give the Isles an even better chance to win while also not expected to be bombarded with shots.
In addition, Greiss won’t also have the same chip on his shoulder that he came in with a year ago. This one could be a positive or negative based on how the fans think. But with how even-keel Greiss has always been, he can put his main focus on playing his game and not worrying about proving his worth.
The Islanders leaned on their goaltending last year to elevate themselves as a playoff threat. It should be no different this upcoming season. And it’s Thomas Greiss who they’ll need to be at his best once again to get them to the next level.
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