Pre-season predictions are made on paper in large part because there’s no other way to really judge or measure the sum of a team’s summer. So, in the case of last season’s 22nd-ranked New York Islanders, who replaced departing superstar and captain John Tavares and defenseman Calvin de Haan with a cohort of Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Luca Sbisa, the optics of their off-season weren’t all that spectacular, which led to predictions that the Islanders would finish somewhere closer to top odds at the first-overall pick than they would a return to the post-season for the first time in three seasons.
The Hockey Gods, however, have paid no mind to those prognostications, as is often the case. And in a season many expected to be flush with growing pains from the outset of the season despite the addition of experienced bench boss and Stanley Cup champion Barry Trotz, the Islanders have instead hit the ground running. With the first full month of the campaign in the books and American Thanksgiving little more than two weeks away, New York finds themselves somewhat shockingly atop the Metropolitan Division with a rock-solid 8-4-2 record, a plus-11 goal differential, one of the stingiest defensive units in the NHL and an efficient offense that is only narrowly outside the league’s top 10.
Everything is coming up Islanders right now, too. Filppula, for instance, was signed for a song on a one-year pact relative to his last deal, but his five goals and eight points have him on pace to easily surpass last season’s point totals. Komarov, too, is scoring at rates better than he did last season in Toronto. All the while, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson are scoring as though Tavares never left town. And that the Islanders are putting up big offensive numbers in the early going despite Mat Barzal basically shooting blanks — he has one goal in 14 games after netting 22 in his 82-game rookie campaign — speaks to the depth of scoring New York has managed, a depth that has come to the amazement of some.
One can’t help but wonder exactly how sustainable this success is, though. Are the Islanders are a team that’s for real, a competitive bunch that is going to be this season’s Vegas Golden Knights and flip the pre-season predictions on their ear in laughable fashion? Or has New York has had the kind of good fortune through the early campaign that vanishes as the season plays out? And, unfortunately for Islanders faithful, it would appear the former is much more likely that the latter.
While the only success that really, truly matters is results, the way the Islanders have arrived at their current place atop the Metropolitan is hardly by on-ice dominance. It’s the opposite, if anything, that’s true. In fact, if one were to look only at the underlying numbers associated with New York, the assumption would be that the Islanders sit low in the standings, closer to where they were expected to before the puck dropped on the season. According to NaturalStatTrick, Trotz’s group at 5-on-5 has the NHL’s worst Corsi for percentage (42.5), third-worst shots for percentage (42.7), second-worst scoring chances for percentage (42.4) and sixth-worst high-danger chances for percentage (43.7). The numbers are much the same at all strengths, too, and for those who prefer a more standard metric, consider that only the Anaheim Ducks (minus-10.8) and Ottawa Senators (minus-10.2) have a lower average shot differential. Neither Anaheim or Ottawa is in a wild-card position at this point, and the level of concern surrounding both clubs is high.
But what’s the difference in New York? What has allowed the Islanders to escape their ugly underlying numbers, sometimes by the skin of their teeth, and emerge from the first month of the season in seemingly solid shape?
It’s been a combination of things, really. Primarily, though, it’s the goaltending that has been to thank, which is a foreign concept to an Islanders team that suffered through atrocious netminding last season. New York’s trio of Jaroslav Halak, Christopher Gibson and Thomas Greiss, who remains with the Islanders, posted a combined .903 save percentage over the course of the 2017-18 campaign. It was a near league-worst performance, saved from that humiliating distinction only by worse performances in Ottawa and Carolina.
But the unexpected resurgence of Greiss and the addition of Robin Lehner — as well as director of goaltending Mitch Korn — has turned the once-weakness into a stunning strength through the first month of the campaign. To wit, among goaltenders with at least five games played, both Greiss (.940) and Lehner (.928) rank in the league’s top-15 in SP entering Wednesday’s action. No other team has two goaltenders in the league’s top 15, let alone two netminders with SPs clear of the .920 mark. The combined .931 SP of Greiss and Lehner stands alone atop the NHL, while the .945 SP at five-a-side ranks fourth.
Goaltending alone can’t win games, however. Ask the very same Ducks who’ve been outshot at the same frequency. As good as John Gibson has been in Anaheim — and he’s been excellent, to be sure, with a .933 SP through 13 games — the Ducks can’t seem to string wins together. The difference between Ducks and Islanders, however, is that New York is having unparalleled shooting success. At 11 percent at 5-on-5, the Islanders have the league’s top shooting percentage. At all strengths, the number rises to 12.1 percent, which is third-best in the NHL. And that’s been evident in the way several players are finding twine. There are 11 lineup regulars in New York with a shooting percentage above 12 percent, the most in the NHL.
That the Islanders have had this much good fortune on both sides of the puck, though, should be cause for some concern. The ebb and flow nature of an NHL campaign generally means that favorable percentages now will give way to unfavorable percentages at some point down the line. For a team to maintain a PDO, a measure of combined shooting and save percentage, of 105.1 is tremendously unlikely. In the past 10 82-game campaigns, no team has maintained a PDO higher the 2009-10 Washington Capitals’ 103.3 mark. The vast majority of teams, however, fall back into the 100-range.
So, while teams with poor underlying numbers have been able to maintain high PDOs — hello, 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche — it’s a rarity, at best. And if history is any indicator, New York should enjoy their time atop the Metropolitan, because it doesn’t appear it’s built to last.