While the New York Islanders weren’t good under Doug Weight, the forwards had it pretty good. He seemingly allowed them to play however their hearts desired, and when you grant forwards that much latitude, any notions of three-zone responsibility are squashed by the prospect of juicy stat lines. In 2017-18, that one-sided approach produced the franchise’s highest goal total since 1993-94 and a Calder Trophy for sensational center Mathew Barzal.
It also yielded the team’s worst defensive performance in over 20 years. In a nutshell, the Islanders played eventful, error-riddled hockey.
When general manager Lou Lamoriello brought in Barry Trotz as Weight’s replacement, he landed a respected and experienced head coach who was fresh off his first championship. The organization felt it was time to get serious about winning. However, the former Washington Capitals bench boss faced a tall task: Purging the team’s bad habits and planting the seeds of successful ones. Without a wealth of talent at his disposal, it seemed like 2018-19 would consist of growing pains as the club slowly course-corrected on the long and hard road back to playoffs.
The players swiftly dispelled that notion.
But instead of taking shortcuts in hopes of expediting the process, they returned to the postseason by displaying an absolutely stunning level of commitment to Trotz’s principles. Their coach got the most out of them by emphasizing the need to control the trenches above all else. At 5-on-5, his squad controlled 47.8% of the shot attempts (26th), 49.4% of the scoring chances (16th) and 52.5% of the high-danger bids (12th). The Isles were content to let opponents dictate play on the perimeter. Once the action inched closer to the congested areas, they bore down like few other teams in the league. They guarded the slot with relentless energy and swarmed the opposition’s cage in rapid-fire flurries. As a result, they owned 57.7% of the high-danger goals (2nd). The Isles were no longer quite as entertaining, but they were incredibly efficient.
Embracing that basic concept — winning the battles in prime real estate — pushed the team to a 48-27-7 record and the second seed in the Metropolitan Division.
A defensive turnaround was at the heart of this surprising season. In just one year, the Isles rocketed up from dead last in goals against per game (3.57) to first (2.33). Trotz didn’t exactly possess shutdown blueliners either. He and his players put in the work to thrive within his scheme, and the proof of his coaching prowess was in the pudding.
With that said, it wasn’t the usual suspects leading the charge. Veterans Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk struggled with the new system, conceding far more high-danger chances than their counterparts. Leddy, who isn’t built for bend-not-break defense, posted the worst expected GF% (45.0) on the back end. Among the 124 defensemen who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, he ranked 117th in that department. Meanwhile, Boychuk is 35 years old and petering out by the season.
Thankfully, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech were much quicker to settle in. With their long reach and sound positioning, this trio excelled at protecting their house. All three flirted with the 53.0 HDCF% mark and Pulock proved that managerial patience is indeed a virtue. The 2013 first-round pick didn’t take the world by storm early on, but he’s developed into a solid two-way defenseman as well as the top minute-muncher on the team. He’s so much more than a cannon from the point now. Trotz trusts him in any situation, as he led the club in even-strength time on ice while logging heavy minutes on special teams.
In late December, another pleasant surprise buoyed the blue line: 25-year-old Devon Toews made his debut and looked the part of a genuine difference-maker by moving the puck exceptionally well without compromising the team’s defensive integrity. In sheltered minutes, he ranked first along the blue line in SCF% (54.1) and HDCF% (58.5).
That depth allowed the coaching staff to spread the minutes out and focus more on enforcing its game plan than worrying about what the opposition was up to.
Trotz’s greatest triumph, however, was getting the forwards to buy in. Many were coming off career years and Barzal had emerged as a superstar in the making. Nevertheless, they believed in their coach’s philosophy and were willing to sacrifice their offensive numbers in service of more important ones: wins. While Barzal (62 points in 82 games), captain Anders Lee (51 points in 82 games), Jordan Eberle (37 points in 78 games) and Josh Bailey (56 points in 82 games) saw sharp declines in their production, they rolled their sleeves up and delivered the grunt work this system required. It wasn’t always pretty of course, but they were trying — and that made a world of difference for a team dead set on simply outworking its opponents in the trenches.
Moves, all @Barzal_97.
OT winner, all Josh Bailey.
— NHL (@NHL) April 11, 2019
Outside of Eberle and Andrew Ladd, the forwards fared well from a defensive perspective. Gritty veterans Casey Cizikas (33 points in 73 games) and Cal Clutterbuck (23 points in 73 games) were predictably great in this setting. On the whole, they hustled on the backcheck and funneled opponents toward the boards. Though the team gave up a decent number of shots, those often came without traffic and from harmless areas.
This made life much easier for both the blue line and goaltenders Robin Lehner (2.13 GAA, 93.0 SV%) and Thomas Greiss (2.28 GAA, 92.7 SV%). Those elements combined for the single best on-ice SV% (93.7) in the league.
— NHL (@NHL) February 17, 2019
Any team that’s tough in the trenches is a tough out. That’s where goals are scored, and that reality is only further highlighted in the playoffs. In their first-round matchup, the Isles dominated the Pittsburgh Penguins by doubling down on their system. They owned just 44.2% of the shot attempts but 53.2% of the high-danger chances and a ridiculous 85.7% of the high-danger goals in an embarrassing sweep of the longtime contenders.
Unfortunately, they suffered that same fate against an equally hungry opponent in the conference semifinals. Under new head coach Rod Brind’Amour, the Carolina Hurricanes played a wonderful brand of hockey that relied on offensive volume and stout team defense. That level of resistance flustered a New York squad that ranked 22nd offensively during the regular season. Since Trotz couldn’t find any answers on his roster, it spiraled out of control and was bounced in four games as well. Carolina served the Isles a taste of their own medicine by scoring every single one of the high-danger goals in the series.
Even with that bitter conclusion, New York’s year was a resounding success. It engineered a 23-point improvement and built a porous defense into the team’s strength.
Buffing the offense while maintaining that stinginess represents the key moving forward. That’s a delicate balancing act, but that’s precisely why the club sought out Trotz. Lamoriello didn’t exactly help his cause, though. His quiet offseason has consisted of letting Lehner and veteran Valtteri Filppula (31 points in 72 games) walk while replacing them with Semyon Varlamov (2.87 GAA, 90.9 SV%) and Derick Brassard (23 points in 70 games).
Skeptics might question whether Varlamov can replicate Lehner’s performance, but the latter was about as unproven as the former going into last season. Greiss remains on the roster as well, so we should see a rotation unless one of the netminders completely drops the ball. Up front, Brassard is decidedly worse than Filppula defensively but carries more offensive upside. Can he tap back into that potential on the third line? The 31-year-old was an utter disaster in that role on three different teams last season. He actually produced less than the defense-first center whose spot he’s claiming. That…isn’t promising.
Elsewhere, 2014 first-round picks Michael Dal Colle (7 points in 28 games) and Joshua Ho-Sang (2 points in 10 games) were re-signed and are still hoping to cement full-time spots in Long Island. Dal Colle is a willing shooter and Ho-Sang is an undeniable talent. Both posted stellar underlying numbers, but if they want to stick on Trotz’s team, they will need to show a commitment to two-way hockey.
The 2018 draft class is also a possible X-factor entering 2019-20. Oliver Wahlstrom (11th overall pick) is a pure scorer who did well in limited outings with Bridgeport in the AHL. He would bring an instant scoring punch that could prove particularly useful on the power play, where New York ranked 29th. On the back end, Noah Dobson (12th overall pick) could make the jump following a phenomenal year in the QMJHL. He was dealt to Rouyn-Noranda midseason and went absolutely haywire, registering 36 points in 28 regular season games only to top that with 29 points in 20 playoff contests. The 19-year-old is one of the most highly touted defensive prospects in the world, combining a 6’4” frame with smarts and poise on the puck.
It’s just as likely that neither kid is ready, and that’s perfectly fine too. The Isles’ core is young, hungry, coachable and already proved last season that it’s up for a challenge.