Last night, the New York Islanders played their 30th game of the season. And from this blogger’s perspective, it still hard to pinpoint what exactly this team is.
The Isles record through the first 30 contests sits at 14-12-4. Technically they are over .500 from a wins-loss perspective, but combine the regulation losses with the overtime defeats, and the team sits at 14-16. Their record though is not an indicator of how fans and critics alike should view them.
Under new head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders playing with a new structure has led to solid improvement. Defensively, they are night and day compared to where they stood last season. Trotz’ skaters — who gave up a league-worst 296 goals, allowed an obscene 35.6 shots a game, and had the worst penalty kill of the 31 clubs — are near the top or in the middle of the pack in all three categories.
Offensively, the Isles rank near the bottom in goals for and shots per game. Trotz’ teams over the years have been accustomed to being low in those categories. So it should come as no surprise to see the Islanders with similar numbers.
To add how odd this campaign has been so far, is how the Isles have overachieved against their Metropolitan Division foes, and how bizarre the division is as a whole.
A remarkable 10-3-1 mark is where the Islanders stand against division opponents. It’s hard to fathom that when almost everyone expected them to be the doormats of the division with their city neighbors, the New York Rangers. But the Isles have found a certain formula that have made them successful against their rivals. And for all the possible playoff talk, the Metro is wide open. New York is right in the thick of it and are not far behind the class of the division, the reigning Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. They seem to be on even playing field with the Penguins and Blue Jackets. As for the Devils, Flyers, and Hurricanes, the Islanders are right in that mix, maybe even a step above.
What’s weird about the 30 games the Isles have played, is that the you don’t know what kind of performance you’re going to get on a nightly basis.
There’s been the offensive outbursts in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, against the Sharks and Rangers. Then the are games they’ve played extremely well but ended up on the losing side — Boston, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay. Only have there been a few clunkers (Dallas, the Ranger game on Thanksgiving Eve, and recently in Pittsburgh). And finally the games they lost because of mistakes at the wrong time — Montreal, Florida, Winnipeg, Washington, and yesterday versus Vegas.
There has been a more consistent component to the Isles than in past years.
Review recent seasons and you knew the kind of games to expect from the Islanders. 2015-16, you had a club — led by Jack Capuano — that could roll four lines and play with almost any team. 2016-17, a team that struggled to play 60 minutes with missing pieces and no identity. 2017-18, a flawed roster under Doug Weight’s watch that could explode from an offensive standpoint, but were completely nonexistent on the back end and in goal which either resulted in a shootout (going goal for goal with the opposition) or blowout.
Overall, the Isles have played competitive enough every night to give themselves a chance to win. That might not have been said if not for the new coaching staff and shift system wise.
Trotz — and his staff — have had this team ready to play nearly every game, except for the few mentioned in the graph earlier. Watch the Isles now under Trotz and you see a squad that now has so much more attention to detail in the defensive zone and doesn’t allow teams to make like they have a puck on a string. Also, you see a team less fragile and able to take a punch and then give it right back.
Individually, there’s the good and there’s the bad.
Last year’s Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal sits at a respectable 25 points. But, he’s had his fair share of high and low moments to this point of his sophomore campaign. Anthony Beauvillier — who had a rough beginning to the season for a second straight time — has been rejuvenated and is turning into one of the team’s more dependable goal scorers. Captain Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Josh Bailey have all had quality seasons. Jordan Eberle, a pending unrestricted free agent, has only 13 points and has struggled to produce, including being snake-bitten when it comes to scoring goals.
Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov, g.m. Lou Lamoriello’s two key free agent acquisitions, have excelled in their roles both on offense and defense. Filppula has really been the biggest surprise with 16 points already, while Komarov two-way game has been a breath of fresh air. Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck have generated that same chemistry as a line they had for a two-year run from 2014 through 2016.
Tom Kuhnhackl and Ross Johnston has also performed well as depth players.
On D, Scott Mayfield has emerged as a stalwart and is becoming very reliable. Johnny Boychuk looks better than he has in recent seasons. Nick Leddy, Adam Pelech, and Thomas Hickey — all still learning Trotz’s system — have been up and down, but all seem to be more stable in their own zone. Ryan Pulock has shown that he could be a stud d-man, but still could use some tweaks — mainly his shooting.
Goaltending wise, Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have been better than expected. While neither has really taken the reins as the number one, both have shown enough consistency to deserve equal playing time. Greiss, after his dismal season this season prior, has been fantastic in his approach under the tutelage of Mitch Korn and Piero Greco. He’s sporting a sound .918 save percentage. Lehner on the other hand, is still seen as a work in progress, but also has a save percentage of .912.
So what could be noted about the Islanders through 30 games?
They’re a team with a gritty, hard-working mentality. A team with good hockey players that have played to the identity the coach and the general manager have been preaching since the day they were put in charge over the summer. A squad with guys who are in the midst of learning to become complete players instead of being one-dimensional. A club that many will say lacks talent in certain areas but makes up for it intangibles. And they are a group heading in the right direction for the first time in a long time.
Do all those things add up to a return to the postseason for the first time since 2016? That might determined after another 30 games. If the Isles can keep a few trends going and buck some others in the process, there’s no doubt they will definitely be playing in meaningful games down the stretch.
But for now the Islanders are what some thought they were, some nobody saw coming, or still a question mark.
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