If you still have the Islanders’ 2018-19 schedule around, check out Oct. 4 and remember what you were thinking about prospects for the new season.
It was opening night and forecasts for new coach Barry Trotz‘s team were so dim that The Hockey News predicted an eighth (last) place finish in the Metro Division.
“New York is trending downwards,” predicted THN writer Michael Willhoft, “with question marks throughout the lineup.”
A playoff berth was out of the question. Virtually every media type was unanimous on that count.
So, here we are looking backward at one of the most astonishing ascensions in National Hockey League history. Read on and you’ll find The Maven’s 20 reasons to adore the Islanders.
1. They climbed from an 80-point 2017-18 season to 103 this time around. That’s a gain of 23 points in the standings. More than anyone could imagine in his or her wildest dreams.
2. They not only made the playoffs — finishing second in the Met Division, only one point behind first-place Washington — but gained the home-ice advantage for the first playoff round.
— MSG Networks (@MSGNetworks) March 31, 2019
4. Defense last season unquestionably was the league’s worst with 296 red lights against. Incredibly, it was converted into the NHL’s best under The Trotz Goal Diet –with only 196 pucks passing over the Isles goal line. That’s a big fat, 100 less than the previous campaign.
5. Offense — with John Tavares having gone north to Canada — the attack was projected to be somewhere between tepid and non-existent. Yet scoring-by-committee worked and the result was a 228 Goals-For mark; commendable for a defense-first team.
6. General manager Lou Lamoriello‘s replacements on offense originally were ridiculed as inconsequential. Yet, Valtteri Filpulla, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Tom Kuhnhackl each proved to be substantial assets and essential to gaining a playoff berth.
7. Questioned for retaining the same defense, Lamoriello looked like a genius as Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield — along with newcomer Devon Toews — helped Lehner-Greiss win the Jennings award.
8. The brass played it smart. Co-owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky let the new high command orchestrate their show. Lamoriello-Trotz, in turn, revamped the team while scripting an incredible-but true hockey story.
9. Starting in November, skeptics continued to project an Islanders collapse. They did it regularly, right through March, until the official playoff-clinching in April.
10. Accountability — it was missing for years — but returned under Lamoriello-Trotz. Underperformers wound up in the press box. Favoritism went out the window. Prospects were better-handled and a sense of pride returned to the franchise. Both players and fans jumped on the Isles Express.
11. Buying into the Trotz System was a must and the players — respecting Barry’s history — followed through. Exhibits A, B and C were high-profile victories (4-0 win in Toronto; 2-0 shutout on Trotz’s return to D.C., the 5-4 miracle in Winnipeg, et. al.)
What a night in Winnipeg! Hear how our Brendan Burke called five Islanders goals, as the visitors stormed back to shock the Jets for a 5-4 comeback victory!
12. The “Fourth-Line” of Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck was effective in its original incarnation. Lamoriello re-invented the line by bringing back Martin. Re-named by Trotz, “The Identity Line,” the trio’s slambang style proved as effective this season as it had the first time around.
13. Fresh faces invigorate a team and that was the case when Toews was promoted from Bridgeport. Providing an impact at all ends of the ice, the young defender composed eye-opening maneuvers that guarantee he’ll be part of the future foundation. Ditto Michael Dal Colle, who found ways of being effective even with limited ice time.
14. When Tavares jettisoned himself to Toronto, the general feeling was that the club would do a Humpty-Dumpty and have a great fall. Not only did the Isles not fall, the club managed to clinch a playoff berth ahead of the Leafs and finished with more points than Toronto. Plus, Trotz & Co. lasted one more playoff round than JT’s new club.
15. Adjusting to Trotz’s detail-first system was challenging for free-wheeling skaters such as sophomore Mathew Barzal. But the creative center bought into the system, knowing that it would cost him points. No sophomore slump for Matthew who continued to carry the club on many nights.
16. If one were to single out “A Changed Man” under the new regime, it would have to be large center Brock Nelson. “Brock went from zero to hero,” said Matthew Blittner, lead Islanders feature writer for NY Sports Day.
17. The empty captaincy was more than adequately filled by Anders Lee. A natural leader, the likable Minnesotan accepted the “C” without missing a beat. This was yet another example of the general staff choosing wisely.
18. Handling the homestretch was a challenge that could have dissolved a lesser club. The players took their punishment during the last weeks of March, fought back and got back on track when others had thought they’d remain de-railed.
19. The Cup-experienced Penguins led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and Phil Kessell failed to daunt Barry’s Boys throughout the first playoff round. Of course, nobody in his right mind could have predicted a sweep. But it happened.
20. As for the future, everything’s coming up roses. Goaltending and defense are set while the offense is just a piece or two away from being solid. “Coaching, stability, accountability, and positive culture change tells you that the Isles are back,” said Rob Taub, an IslesBlog contributor. “This year proved it!”
Postscript: Just to be sure I was on the right track, I asked Zachary Weinstock, my co-author on the Islanders-Rangers Rivalry book, how he feels about the Islanders at this close of their season.
“I love them because they entertained us in almost every game,” Weinstock concluded. “They filled the Coliseum with glee and they took the game seriously while giving the franchise an identity.
“No matter how you shake it, they wound up one of the last eight teams playing and, best of all, they made us all proud!”