will 1st-place isles be buyers?
The New York Islanders are proving that you can’t underestimate the power of coherent organization toward the top of a professional sports franchise.
Year No. 1 of the Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz experiment has been an overwhelming success as the Islanders approach the All-Star break very much in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Tuesday night’s 2-1 overtime win against the St. Louis Blues was the Islanders’ ninth win in its last 11 games. They are 11 games over .500 at 26-15-4 (56 points) and with one less game played than every other team in the Metropolitan Division, the Islanders are still in third place.
A win on Thursday night against the Devils could see them move to within a point of the division-leading Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue JacketsThe new president of hockey operations and head coach — who is less than a year out from winning his first-ever Stanley Cup as bench boss of the Washington Capitals — have breathed new life into an organization that has often been the cast-offs of the NHL.
Since the glory days of a dynastic Stanley Cup run that provided four-straight championships from 1980-1983, the Islanders have constantly been looked upon as the little brother of New York with the Rangers often dominating the hockey landscape.
It’s understandable as to why it happened. The past 25 years have been nothing short of a disaster for the Islanders as they’ve endured plenty of embarrassing miscalculations.
The latest blow to the franchise, which many believed would be the most damning, was the loss of John Tavares, who shunned the Islanders after nine seasons to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.
As the one key face of a franchise that provided a semblance of relevancy in the NHL, Tavares’ departure could have very well set the Islanders franchise back a few more years. Not many people expected anything more.
After all, Lamoriello didn’t necessarily scorch the Earth to find a replacement for the star power of the forward now known around these parts as “Pajama Boy.” Instead, they made quiet acquisitions in Leo Komarov and Valtteri Filppula — who scored the game-winner on Tuesday night — while handing over the keys to the offense to reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal, captain Anders Lee, and veteran playmaker Josh Bailey.
They decided not to completely overhaul the league’s worst defense last year, either, opting to bring in goalie Robin Lehner, who outrun his demons to Brooklyn and Long Island for a fresh start.
Lamoriello then simply referred his team to their new head coach, Trotz, who implemented structure, accountability, and something that has been vacant around the Islanders organization for the better part of three decades now: A winning mentality.
“The commitment level is there, all the small little things that you see with our structure,” Islanders captain Anders Lee told Metro back in November. “We’re throwing that word around a lot but it’s really important for us because it’s allowing us to win games.”
Lehner (2.16 GAA, .928 SV%) and Thomas Greiss (2.62 GAA, .918) have become the best goaltending tandem in the NHL while the defense has gone from worst to first in terms of fewest goals allowed this season.
“It’s like good pitching, it gives you confidence,” Trotz said. “At the same time, you don’t want to cheat off that.
It’s provided a strong foundation to take pressure off the offense, which is doing just enough. Barzal continues to perform at close to a point-per-game clip, Lee and Brock Nelson lead the team with 16 goals apiece, and the duo of Filppula and Komarov have combined for 34 points this season, a fine veteran addition to the bottom six to help nurture the younger players.
Most importantly though, the Islanders have proven that they can not only survive, but thrive without Tavares.
“I think it keeps everybody engaged and we have to make up some offense if you will when you lose a player like [Tavares],” Trotz said. “Other guys have stepped up and that’s what you want… One thing about our group is that all lines believe they can play against anybody and all lines believe they can contribute in some way.”
It hasn’t been the most attractive brand of hockey at times, but it’s been plenty effective. And you won’t hear a peep out of the Islanders’ best.
“Hey, if it works and we’re winning, keep it coming,” Barzal said