Early returns on Islanders defense are promising

The state of the New York Islanders defense heading into the 2018-19 season looked as though it was a recipe for disaster.

 After a 2017-18 season in which the team allowed a staggering 296 goals, worst in the league, new president Lou Lamoriello did nothing to improve his current unit.

In fact, while the loss of John Tavares headlined the team’s offseason, the talent pool on defense got even smaller after Calvin de Haan opted to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes in free agency.

What was left didn’t necessarily instill much confidence. Nick Leddy had a minus-42 rating while Johnny Boychuk was continuously plagued by the injury bug. Thomas Hickey adds little size while Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech, who has struggled in his first three games, continue to find their footing as professionals. Highly-touted prospect Devon Toews made a strong push to make the opening-night roster, but a combination of veteran journeyman Luca Sbisa and the raw Scott Mayfield made the cut over him. Through the first three games of the season, albeit a small sample size, the Islanders have given up just five goals, four of them coming in a loss to the Nashville Predators last week. Only four teams in the Eastern Conference have allowed fewer goals and all of them have yet to play three games this season.

It’s a surprising start considering nothing has changed on the blue line. However, there have been supporting factors that have taken a load of pressure off the defense.

Goaltenders Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have already stood on their heads in each Islanders win. On opening night, Greiss allowed just a single goal on 46 shots, a dizzying amount that was commonplace last year for a defense that was sieve-like.

Lehner, making his Islanders debut on Monday, stopped all 35 shots faced in a dominating 4-0 win over the San Jose Sharks.

While the goaltending has been good to start, a new regime has brought about a different style of play.

No longer are the Islanders simply a run-and-gun kind of offense that is predicated on a fast pace and an incomplete style. Under new head coach Barry Trotz, Islanders forwards are backchecking and covering for their defense rather than leaving the blue line and goalies out to dry.

It was something Lehner expected even before the season started.

“I watched a lot of their games last year. It was open hockey… a lot of go, go, go offense and there was nothing back,” he said during training camp. “That’s not going to be the case this year.”

The additions of Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov have not backfired yet as the veteran forwards have brought an added defensive presence to New York’s forward lines while supplying much-needed support on the penalty kill, which was one of the worst units the league has seen over the past 30 years last season. The Islanders have killed off their first eight penalties this year while Casey Cizikas added a shorthanded empty-netter on Monday against the Sharks.

A three-game start isn’t going to change the consensus that the Islanders are not a playoff team, but the improvements on defense have been promising.