For the New York Islanders, the 2018-19 season was a resounding success. The team bounced back from a regressive 2017-18 campaign (that was capped by losing their captain John Tavares) with an extraordinary effort that surprised nearly everyone. Led by their defense-first mentality, the goalie tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss won the William M. Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed in the NHL with 191, a 102 goal improvement from the 2017-18 season.
The Islanders also returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. Though they were swept in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes, the Islanders took a leap forward in its first full season with head coach Barry Trotz and general manager Lou Lamoriello pulling the strings.
With training camp well underway and the start of the 2019-20 season within reach, it’s time to establish expectations for this year’s Islanders.
Even Islander fans have to admit that it’ll be difficult to recreate the defensive magic the team had last season. Either way, the Islanders need to keep their defense-first mentality, and a second straight season as one of the stingiest teams in the NHL would be a success.
The Islanders didn’t add any major players from outside the organization, but they do get a full season of Devon Toews, who now has just over half a season under his belt along with eight playoff games of experience. The rest of the Islanders’ young, homegrown defensive group, consisting of Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, and Scott Mayfield, are also a year older and have a much clearer understanding of the systems and what’s expected of them from coach Trotz.
The team does have to make a decision on their 2018 first-round draft pick, Noah Dobson. The log-jam on defense doesn’t leave a lot of room for him, but those inside the organization may be leaning towards giving him a shot this season:
“Another year in junior is probably not going to help him a whole lot,” Trotz said. “You lose pace. You rely on your natural ability and you don’t keep progressing. That will be taken into consideration,”
(From ‘Isles have limited options when it comes to where Noah Dobson can play this season,’ Newsday – 9/13/19).
Whether Dobson is part of the group or not, the defense has to be dialed in from game one. Additionally, major questions remain between the pipes. Can Greiss replicate what he did last season? Will Semyon Varlamov thrive under the director of goaltending, Mitch Korn and goaltending coach, Piero Greco like Lehner last season? Another season of elite defense and goaltending will be critical if the team is going to continue moving forward and grow into a contender.
Find Their Scoring Touch
The knock against the Islanders last season was their lack of scoring. Even Trotz recently said that the team needs to step up its offensive game:
“We know how to defend; that won’t be easy to duplicate,” Trotz said. But I think the next evolution of our game is a little more on the offensive side,”
(From ‘State of the Franchise: Can work ethic, will and a few upgrades take the Islanders back to the playoffs?’ The Athletic – 9/12/19).
If Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle can pick up where they left off during the playoffs, it’s easier to hope that the first line will put up better numbers than last season. Brock Nelson, one of the only forwards to produce more under Trotz, will need to continue to find the back of the net. It’s unlikely Anders Lee will hit 40 goals this season, but if he can get into the low to mid-30s, it will help the Islanders win games that require three or more goals.
For now, the lone addition up front from outside the organization is veteran Derick Brassard. He won’t be taking the league by storm, but he could provide around 20 goals, more than respectable for a third-line center. That wouldn’t be out of character for him either; he’s scored more than 20 goals the last two seasons despite splitting games between five teams. Brassard may also help his wingers find their scoring touch. Though the roster is clearer after the Islanders trimmed their roster on Thursday, there are still decisions to be made on line combinations outside of the Islanders’ identity line of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin.
The first two lines, which aren’t solidified, will be made up of Lee, Nelson, Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle, and, of course, Barzal. It’s still unknown who will slot in as the other winger in the top-six, though. After two preseason games, Michael Dal Colle and Anthony Beauvillier have been talked about as the first-line left winger or the third-line left winger. Trotz will also need to decide on the other third-line winger, choosing between Leo Kamarov or Josh Ho-Sang. Tom Kühnhackl, Tanner Fritz, and Ross Johnston are also available, but it’s not likely any of them will be on the opening night roster save for an injury to another player.
Improve the Power Play
Last season, the Islanders’ power play was 14.5 percent, good for 29th in the league. Power plays can be tricky to diagnose but with Scott Gomez gone and Jim Hiller on board as an assistant coach, maybe some new blood on the bench will help the team improve on the man advantage.
The issue I found last year at 5v5 or on the man-advantage was that the Islanders were too predictable. Additionally, they averaged less than 30 shots per game, and when they did shoot, heat maps clearly showed that their shots were coming from the same places game after game. Structure can be a good thing, but the Islanders need to tweak their setup and throw more rubber on net if they want to improve on the power play and take their game to the next level.
Perhaps Brassard can help the Islanders’ power play this season. Two seasons ago, he scored 12 goals on the man advantage. His early chemistry with Barzal is also a good sign. Perhaps another trigger man besides Nelson will help the team take a step in the right direction.
None of this is groundbreaking, but these improvements can help ensure the Islanders continue to move in the right direction. They should have some confidence heading into the 2019-20 season, but it will be important to learn from their mistakes from last season if they expect to make the playoffs in 2019-20.