The New York Islanders emerged as one of the true surprise stories of 2018-19 under their accomplished new hierarchy, rebounding from the departure of John Tavares to advance to the second round of the playoffs. What will Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello and Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz do for an encore in Year 2?
The Isles haven’t made many changes to a roster that improved by 23 points to 103 last season, fourth most in the Eastern Conference, while splitting their home games between arenas in Brooklyn and Long Island.
After the Isles swept Pittsburgh in the first round and suffered the opposite result against Carolina, goalie Robin Lehner was not re-signed following a storybook campaign. He was replaced by longtime Colorado netminder Semyon Varlamov.
At least the Isles didn’t lose their captain for a second consecutive summer, as free-agent left winger and three-time leading goal-scorer Anders Lee re-upped for $49 million over seven years.
Under Trotz, and without Tavares, New York went from a more wide-open style under previous coaches Jack Capuano and Doug Weight to one focused on high-percentage shots and scoring balance, as eight forwards had at least 16 goals.
Still, the front office made a sizable offer to premier UFA left winger Artemi Panarin on July 1, only to see him wind up with the rival Rangers. The Isles pivoted and brought back Lee, whose goal production slipped from 40 to 28 last season, while also re-signing Brock Nelson (25 goals) and Jordan Eberle (19) earlier in the off-season. Mathew Barzal, the 2017-18 Calder Trophy winner, drew more attention from opposing checking lines with Tavares gone, and while he still led the team in scoring, his points fell from 85 as a rookie to 62, with just three power-play goals.
The Islanders became the first NHL team in a century – since Ottawa in 1918-19 – to finish with the fewest goals against one season after allowing the most goals in the league.
The emergence of 2013 first-round pick Ryan Pulock into a top-pair defenseman after several years of injuries and slow development was key. Nick Leddy’s rebound and the arrival of Devon Toews as a speedy, puck-rushing contributor helped fortify the group.
Lehner emerged as a Vezina Trophy finalist and the Masterton Trophy winner after publicly revealing personal issues with depression and addiction. He preferred to stay but signed a one-year deal with Chicago after not responding to what he described as “an ultimatum” from Lamoriello. The 31-year-old Varlamov, a skilled but inconsistent veteran, was signed to a four-year, $20-million deal to team up with Lehner’s Jennings Trophy-winning partner, Thomas Greiss.
Among playoff clubs, only Nashville had a worse power play. The Isles’ PP endured a 3-for-50 skid over the final 22 games. Lee and Eberle combined for 17 power-play goals, more than the rest of the team combined. Defensemen combined for only five PP goals – three by Pulock – with forwards Nelson and Josh Bailey often manning the points. The penalty kill was average, with fourth-liners Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck and veteran Leo Komarov in primary roles.
Lamoriello and Trotz established a culture of professionalism and accountability that had been mostly missing during the decade-plus under ousted GM Garth Snow. Lee took over as captain for Tavares, and the team rallied around the departure of their former star center. Returning to play half of their home games at Nassau Coliseum also provided a boost for a fan base that has largely resisted the commute to Brooklyn.
Winger Oliver Wahlstrom and defenseman Noah Dobson were the 11th and 12th picks in 2018 and will get long looks in camp. Otto Koivula, a 6-foot-4 center from Finland, could vie for a spot after 21 goals and 46 points for AHL Bridgeport.
A monster season from Barzal – more in line with his stellar rookie campaign – could propel the Islanders to the next level – and possibly even their first division title since 1987-88.
The 76-year-old Lamoriello changed the culture and made the right coaching choice in Trotz, who won the Jack Adams Award one year after leading Washington to its first Cup. Owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky have shown a willingness to spend while awaiting the construction of a new arena, but Lamoriello stood pat at the trade deadline and made few impact moves in the summer.
– Peter Botte
Stanley Cup Odds: 38/1
Predictions: 4th in Metro
Offense from the back end will be a strength very soon thanks to Noah Dobson and Bode Wilde, while Oliver Wahlstrom – who left Boston College after one season – will be one to watch on the wing. Simon Holmstrom, a player whose stock rose at the end of the season, was the Isles’ 2019 first-rounder. Holmstrom’s effectiveness was limited early by injury. But the kid has a lot of talent and creativity, helping Sweden win gold at the world under-18s.
1. Noah Dobson, D
Age 19 Team Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL)
Big, rangy defender with nice poise and smarts at both ends. Has tons of big-game experience.
Acquired 12th overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
2. Oliver Wahlstrom, RW
Age 19 Team Boston College (HE)
Struggled in freshman year, but the talent remains. Quick, heavy release. Ticketed for AHL.
Acquired 11th overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
3. Ilya Sorokin, G
Age 24 Team CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Elite goaltending prospect with top-shelf athleticism. Produced at a high level in premier league.
Acquired 78th overall, 2014 NHL ’20-21
4. Bode Wilde, D
Age 19 Team Saginaw (OHL)
Tons of talent on the back end that led to outstanding production. Great frame that will fill out.
Acquired 41st overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23
5. Simon Holmstrom, RW
Age 18 Team HV71 Jr. (Swe.)
Fantastic creativity outweighed injury concerns. More of a playmaker than a scorer.
Acquired 23rd overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
6. Kieffer Bellows, LW
Age 21 Team Bridgeport (AHL)
Production didn’t translate in first pro year, but he has the talent and bloodlines to overcome that.
Acquired 19th overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
7. Otto Koivula, C
Age 21 Team Bridgeport (AHL)
His size helped his transition to center. He impressed in his first North American season.
Acquired 120th overall, 2016 NHL ’21-22
8. Samuel Bolduc, D
Age 18 Team Blainville (QMJHL)
Big man who moves well for his size. He’s a good defensive player with limited offensive upside.
Acquired 57th overall, 2019 NHL ’24-25
9. Sebastian Aho, D
Age 23 Team Bridgeport (AHL)
Gifted skater who moves the puck well. He got a solid trial in the NHL midway through last year.
Acquired 139th overall, 2017 NHL ’19-20
10. Linus Soderstrom, G
Age 23 Team HV71 (Swe.)
Technically sound, but injuries have plagued him and stalled his development track.
Acquired 95th overall, 2014 NHL ’22-23