Check the standings! As much of a surprise it may be to many, it’s not a trick of the mind to see the New York Islanders first in the Metropolitan Division and fifth in the whole league. The recent success coming from what was formerly viewed as one of the weakest East Coast teams has become a major point of interest among NHL experts and fans alike.
Bouts of win streaks have led the Isles to their highly coveted spot in the standings, including their 6 game streak from the end of December leading into early January and their 5 game streak in mid January. Through it all, the takedown of many Atlantic powerhouses remain as highlights and proof that the Islanders’ success isn’t just a result of luck.
You can say that the ball began rolling with their shutout against the Maple Leafs on December 29th, breaking the Leafs’ 5 game win streak in just 60 minutes. It marked the first meeting the Islanders had against John Tavares, their former captain who signed with Toronto as a free agent during the summer. That may have been the force they needed to show Tavares (and the rest of the world) just how much they didn’t need him. The win gave the Islanders enough confidence to also win against Buffalo 3-1 on the 31st of December when the Sabres were the top dog in the Atlantic. Now, over halfway into the season, the Islanders are above both the Leafs and the Sabres, despite the two teams’ star rosters and impressive starts.
The success of the team can be attributed to many different factors. The newly acquired GM and President of Hockey Operations, Lou Lamoriello, and head coach, Barry Trotz, brought experience and hope for victory to the Islanders. Lamoriello’s time with the Devils achieved much success, with the Devils winning 3 Stanley Cups under his management, and his short three year stint with the Leafs brought them to the playoffs twice despite making it only once within the previous 10 years. Barry Trotz came from the Washington Capitals fresh off their Stanley Cup win, making the Islanders’ dream for another cup even closer to being reality. Trotz’s coaching skills are undoubtably proving to be effective among this year’s roster, and Lou’s rule to maintain professionalism by keeping the boys clean shaven has clearly had no negative effects on the team (or on the eyes of fans). Lou’s rules have been respected, with the younger guys, including Beauvillier, changing their numbers to abide by his regulation to have jersey numbers under 30. The respect players hold for the management of the team encourage their success, and the Islanders clearly hold much respect for Lamoriello and Trotz.
However, the most important part to a successful team is the players themselves, and the Islanders have not disappointed fans in this compartment. They have begun to focus their franchise around a group of players, including, but not limited to, Mat Barzal, Robin Lehner, Thomas Greiss, Josh Bailey, and Anders Lee. All five have had outstanding seasons thus far and are projected to continue bettering their reliability as stars among the team, both on and off the ice.
Mathew Barzal, the most recent Calder winner and probably the biggest draft steal the modern Islanders have seen, has mostly eliminated the prospective notion of the sophomore slump. With 28 games left in regular season he’s just under his point production from 2017-2018. Despite his lack of a strong in game presence in the last 5 games or so, the small point rut doesn’t negate his major influence on the team. He currently leads the team in points and has played a key role in the powerplay unit, scoring 18 goals on the PP so far. Representing the Islanders at the all star game this year, he was given a reward for his value and was shown how all stars among the league respect him as a player. He’s been a leader during the past two seasons for the Islanders and despite his young age, it’s clear that he will be a lethal asset among them for a long time.
Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have both held their ground in the Isles’ net fantastically, splitting their goalie duties fairly evenly. Lehner holds a 0.930 save percentage and Greiss maintains his 0.926. Their solid presence in the defensive end allows the team to comfortably be able to make moves in the front. The confidence placed in Lehner, who is slowly establishing himself as the main starter of the Islanders, has made its way across the league, winning him first star of the week in late January which brought even more attention to the success of the team. Robin Lehner’s off-ice contributions to the fight to normalize and encourage the knowledge of mental health makes him a respectable and honourable man. His courage to publicize his struggles paves the way for the elimination of the stigma surrounding mental health, and his battle against it has strengthened the bond of the team and given them a higher desire to show their worth. As goalies, Lehner and Greiss are both key players among the Islanders, bringing them even closer to the long playoff run they are hoping to achieve.
Josh Bailey and Anders Lee both hold major leadership roles for the team, with Bailey acting as an A and Lee being given the honour of captain this season. Bailey’s performance has not waned much since losing his old linemate John Tavares during the summer. He often wings on the line of Barzal and the two create a tough force to beat for the defensive players of the opposing team. Lee is normally seen on the left wing slot of the first line, but he highlights the 1st powerplay unit along with Barzal. Bailey and Lee have a 39 and 38 point season respectively, and have had a large impact on the team off the ice. The invaluable residence of the two on the team has brought them the courage to thrive among the league with their talents.
The lack of opportunities the Islanders give other teams when in competition has given them the upper hand in most of their games. The speed of the game they play and the ability to mitigate the occurrence of major mistakes allows the Islanders to prevail among a league composed of the best hockey players in the world. The slow start to the season spelled nothing but struggle for the Islanders, but their expertise allowed them to catch the league by surprise, rising to the top of the standings in just a few short weeks. Maintaining their place was projected to be difficult for the team, but they have once again proven doubters wrong. The loss of a good draft pick doesn’t hurt as much when the Islanders are this close to making the playoffs, especially considering the talent of the prospects already in the organization, including Noah Dobson, Oliver Wahlstrom, and Kieffer Bellows. The future remains bright in the eyes of the Islanders, and so does the present.
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