Few things are guaranteed in the hockey world, but Lou Lamoriello running a tight ship is one of them. Lamoriello, who was hired by the New York Islanders just before the 2018 NHL Draft, is known to avoid leaking information to the press, which had fans’ heads spinning as they tried to figure out what the veteran president and general manager would do as the impending trade deadline ticked closer to 3:00 pm EST.
With that in mind, and as I continued to think about this season for the Islanders, I kept coming back to two things: Lamoriello won’t make a significant move for the sake of doing so and, perhaps more importantly, the Islanders’ window for success is just opening.
Anyone who knows how Lamoriello runs his teams shouldn’t be surprised with what he has (or hasn’t) done. In a press conference shortly after the trade deadline passed, he said he was happy with where the team is now and thinks they can continue to compete this season and into the future.
In addition to his point, while the Islanders are having an amazing turn-around season, there are still other teams a bit further along in their development and (sorry, Columbus Blue Jackets) mortgaging your future to make it to the second round just isn’t worth it.
The Islanders are a young team that still needs to prove themselves and learn what it takes to be a contender every season. A team’s ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup but after losing a franchise player, ending the season in a top-three seed in the Metropolitan Division should feel pretty good.
Also, depending on who they play in the first or second round, the Isles have an opportunity to teach their young players what it takes to win when teams tighten up, even if that means bowing out in a hard-fought six-game series against the league’s best teams. A quick look at the Washington Capitals, who couldn’t break out of the second round for a decade, is enough to understand it takes time to build a legitimate contender that can overcome a good team in a seven-game series.
The fact the Islanders didn’t make a significant move on Feb. 25 might not sit well right now but remember, more players will be available after July 1 with less risk of messing with team chemistry and without losing important assets. Additionally, if the Islanders win a playoff series with this roster, it may be clearer to players around the league that the team is turning a corner and perhaps they’ll be more willing to sign on Long Island.
Islanders’ Window Is Just Opening
Over the years, the Islanders lacked structure, specifically in the defensive zone. Their forwards often looked lost, meandering from their position and allowing quality opportunities to be generated from the point. Defenders were also caught chasing the puck regularly, leaving opposing players with free reign in front of the net.
This led the Islanders netminders to be peppered with shots and high-quality ones at that. This season, with the help of Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz and his team of assistants, the Islanders’ effort in the defensive zone has been their trademark, propelling them to first place in the Metro Division.
Their improvement has happened with mostly homegrown defenders, anchored by veterans Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, and two goalies – Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner – who, frankly, were question marks heading into the 2018-19 season. This season’s team is keeping pucks to the outside and, even if they are outshot, the quality of those chances have been drastically reduced versus last season. Lehner and Griess are also tops in the league in save percentage and goals-against average.
Up front, the core group of forwards that includes sophomore Mathew Barzal and pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs) Anders Lee and Brock Nelson continue to improve at both ends of the rink under Trotz. Barzal is contributing despite not having a top-six winger and, at 21 years old, he has plenty of time to hone his game. Nelson has looked like a rejuvenated player this season, albeit on a “prove it” bridge deal signed last summer.
He’s already reached last season’s goal total (19) in 21 fewer games and is poised to have a career year in points with a quarter of the season remaining. Lee, who has hit some speed bumps this season, is also likely to hit the 30-goal plateau for the third consecutive season. Contributions are coming from throughout the lineup, which bodes well, though their bottom-six scoring has been carrying the mail of late.
Looking Beyond the 2018-19 Season
The Trotz effect can make the Islanders a contender even with a few missing pieces, but if the Islanders can lock up their UFAs, continue to develop talent in the AHL and add a top-six forward or two in free agency (easier said than done on Long Island), this team looks poised to be in the hunt and continue to grow over the next handful of seasons.
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.