As the holiday season is upon us, PHR will continue its look at what teams are thankful for as we get closer to the halfway point. There also might be a few things your team would like down the road. We’ll examine what’s gone well in the early going and what could improve as the season rolls on for the New York Islanders.
What are the Islanders most thankful for?
Head coach Barry Trotz’ system has held up, even after the departure of Robin Lehner.
Many experts and fans alike were skeptical when the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk this summer, splitting up the Jennings Trophy-winning duo of he and Thomas Greiss that allowed just 2.19 goals against last season. Even more perplexing was handing Semyon Varlamov a long-term contract with an AAV equal to that of the one-year deal signed by Lehner in Chicago. The crucial question for the Isles’ 2019-20 season was whether or not Lehner’s .930 save percentage and 2.13 GAA – both top three among NHL starters last year – were the key to the team’s success or rather a product of Trotz’ system that could be continued by Greiss and replicated by Varlamov.
Midway through this campaign, the front office’s decisions have not backfired. Instead, the Islanders are again one of the stingiest teams in the NHL. Their current 2.57 GAA ranks fifth in the league, helping New York to a .700 points percentage that ranks third in the league. Greiss has continued his roll from last year and Varlamov has fit in seamlessly. The team continues to play an effective shutdown style, protecting their goalies and not allowing the opposition many opportunities to control the pace of the game. So long as the club continues to buy in to this conservative system, the Islanders will continue to win by suffocating their opponent.
Who are the Islanders most thankful for?
Trotz is the answer again. The Islanders made a brilliant move by wooing the veteran head coach away from the 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals right after they won their title, both strengthening their own team while weakening a top rival (although the Capitals remain the Isles’ biggest roadblock to winning the Metropolitan Division). Trotz’ system has worked perfectly for the personnel in New York and has them again in position to be a Cup contender.
However, for the player on the ice that the team is most thankful for, it would have to be Mathew Barzal, even if only by a slim margin. The Islanders are one of the more balanced teams in the league in terms of offensive distribution, but Barzal still narrowly remains the team’s leader in goals, assists, points, plus/minus, and more. The 22-year-old center has 32 points in 35 games, including six points on the team’s tenth-ranked power play. While Barzal’s two-way game is still a work in progress and his shooting percentage suggests that there could be some goal-scoring regression on the way, most night’s he is the most valuable skater on the ice for the Islanders.
What would the Islanders be even more thankful for?
Faster starts. For a team in third-place in the NHL, the Islanders somehow hold a negative goal differential in the first period. The team is tied for fifth-worst in the league in goals for in the first frame, which often puts them at a disadvantage early on. The team can sit back and shut down an opponent when they have the lead, but are not well-equipped to play from behind, as their defensive abilities far outweigh their offense.
What should be on the Islanders’ Holiday Wish List?
A top-six scoring winger. The Islanders are in the enviable position of being a real contender that also will have relatively limitless salary cap space at the NHL Trade Deadline. The team’s low payroll will allow them to add anyone they like in a deadline deal, assuming they are willing to pay the price in trade capital. The target should be a scoring winger to assist with the Islanders’ 19th-ranked offense, currently scoring under three goals a game. Shutdown defense can win many regular season games, but is no guarantee when facing elite firepower or similarly strong defensive units in the postseason.
The Isles could really hit the jackpot if they can acquire a top-six caliber scoring winger who could also contribute on the penalty kill. Despite the team’s considerable ability to play defensive hockey in Trotz’ system, they have struggled short-handed this year, ranking 21st in the NHL. In a physical playoff series, the team could use all the help they can get with ensuring penalties don’t get the best of them.