The New York Islanders aren’t exceeding expectations. In order for that to be the case, the Islanders would have had to have any real expectations in the first place.
In the wake of John Tavares’ headline-making departure as a free agent, the belief was an already also-ran Islanders club would slide into the NHL’s basement while they recovered from what some perceived to be a blow serious enough to derail the entire operation in New York for at least a season or two. It was thought that the loss of the superstar center — the heart-and-soul of the Islanders — would thrust outstanding rookie Mat Barzal into the spotlight far too early and leave a gaping hole in the depth of the club, that the departure of free agent defenseman Calvin de Haan would likewise hurt a thin blueline and that the off-season action, including signings of Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Robin Lehner, were nowhere near enough to move the needle back in the right direction. And it’s those reasons, among others, that The Hockey News’ Yearbook had the Islanders pegged for the eighth spot in the Metropolitan Division.
But it seems we, as well as a host of others, completely overlooked the magic coach Barry Trotz had the potential to work in New York. As the Islanders prepare to play their 41st game of the campaign, they do so holding the top wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. They rank fifth in the conference with a plus-14 goal differential. They’ve rattled off six-consecutive victories. And if this holds, they would earn their first playoff berth in three seasons, making the first season of the post-Tavares era an unforeseen success story for the Islanders.
Hired early in the off-season, not long after he basked in Stanley Cup glory with the now-division rival Washington Capitals, Trotz’s impact on New York’s play has been significant and not all that unlike some of his best years with the Nashville Predators, when he spurred that franchise to results far greater than the apparent sum of its parts. Trotz has managed to get the results by putting substance over style, and that can be witnessed in the dedication to shutting off the middle of the ice and the prime scoring areas.
The greatest evidence of Trotz’s impact can be seen when flipping through the Islanders’ underlying numbers at five-a-side. A cursory glance at two of the most common numbers — Corsi percentage and shots percentage — doesn’t suggest there’s been any massive change. Year-over-year, New York’s two shot-based possession rates have improved by less than one-fifth of a percent and 1.4 percent, respectively. The more significant changes, however, have come in the scoring chance rates.
Last season under deposed bench boss Doug Weight, the Islanders were porous defensively. Beyond having atrocious possession rates, New York surrendered more scoring chances against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than any other team, and the same held true for high-danger chances against. So, despite a dynamite attack, the Islanders were often battling from behind and playing catchup.
That has changed under Trotz. The defensive-minded approach has seen New York decrease their chances against by 3.3 per 60 minutes and their overall scoring chance percentage rise by nearly 2.1 percent. That change is thanks in part to 1.8 fewer high-danger opportunities against per 60 minutes, which has subsequently resulted in a nearly 3.9 percent increase in high-danger chance percentage. In the latter category, the Islanders are now a top-15 team in both rate and percentage.
The commitment to limiting opportunities in their own end of the ice under Trotz has had some welcome impacts in goal for the Islanders, too. In fact, it’s the one ripple effect of the defensive buy-in that has likely had the greatest impact on New York’s success. Last season, the Islanders’ goaltending numbers were unsightly, with a 5-on-5 save percentage of .917 sitting as the sixth-worst in the NHL. At all strengths, the combined .900 SP even worse, only three spots from last in the league. But the crease has seen an almost overnight revival thanks to the pairing of New York’s newfound defensive structure with the off-season addition of longtime Trotz associate Mitch Korn, who is considered among the best goalie coaches in NHL history and followed Trotz to the Islanders as director of goaltending.
Thomas Greiss, for example, turned in an ugly .892 SP in 27 appearances last season with a bloated 3.82 goals-against average. He was picked apart on a nightly basis due to poor defending. But with a lighter in-game workload — he’s averaging 3.2 fewer shots against per 60 minutes this season at 5-on-5 and 3.6 fewer per 60 minutes at all strengths — Greiss has been able to post significantly improved .917 SP and 2.62 GAA marks through 23 games. Meanwhile, Lehner has been one of the great surprises of the season.
After being cast off in Buffalo, where he had consistently posted steady numbers despite the Sabres’ own defensive shortcomings, Lehner is on pace to have the single-best season of his career. His .927 SP is the best mark he’s posted in any campaign that he’s played in at least 20 games and his 2.18 GAA is likewise the best rate of his career. Compared to all netminders with at least 20 games played this season, Lehner ranks first in both categories, too. If it wasn’t for the outsized value placed on wins by the league’s GMs, who vote for the league’s top goaltender come end of season, Lehner would be a sneaky Vezina Trophy candidate.
True as it may be that the season is far from over and that it’s still too soon to call the Islanders a success story, there’s more than simply hope that New York can fight for and win a wild-card or possibly divisional playoff spot. The Islanders have earned the results this season, and as the second half of the season gets underway, New York is going to welcome some newfound expectations.