Islanders’ Journey Back to Being Contenders

For many seasons in the last decade, the New York Islanders were being taken advantage of by the opposition. Even with a future star in John Tavares, they did not get respect from many teams and had big-time players getting hurt regularly. Whether the hits were legal or not, the Islanders were always just looked at by others as a laughing stock.

Related: A Look Back at the New York Islanders’ 2008 Draft

The first big-time hit laid on an Islander was by Max Talbot on Blake Comeau at the end of the 2007-08 season. The following preseason, Dion Phaneuf hit Kyle Okposo with an elbow that left him being stretchered off the ice. To add to it, Phaneuf was not penalized or suspended, making the Islanders’ front office irate.

New York Islanders
New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The following year, Mark Fristic injured Nino Niederreiter on a deliberate hit to the head. In 2011, Comeau was concussed after Matt Cooke laid a hit on him. Once again, no penalty was called.

Bottom of the Standings

For many years, the Islanders found themselves at the bottom of the league. From 2005-2011, New York only made the playoffs once and had to rebuild after Mike Milbury’s tenure on Long Island and his horrible trades, draft selections, and free agent signings. It led to Garth Snow taking over and having very little success as well. The only hope was that the Islanders always gave themselves a shot at winning the draft lottery.

General manager Garth Snow
Garth Snow (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, many of the first picks after 2010 did not work out as Ryan Strome and Niederreiter were not managed well by New York. The Islanders’ future in New York was in jeopardy as well when the county voted “no” on a $400 million plan for a renovated coliseum. This took place during the summer of 2011 with the Islanders coming off a season where they finished last place in the Metropolitan Division.

Fight Night

The Islanders were well out of the playoff race but had one of the most memorable games of that season at the Coliseum. With frustration boiling over, the Islanders dressed Trevor Gillies and recalled Micheal Haley from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League. It started with Haley dropping the gloves with Craig Adams of the Pittsburgh Penguins and went on all night. Eric Godard and Gillies fought, but that was more about the Islanders jumping out to a big lead, and Gillies not willing to back down from anyone.

The nearly empty benches of the Penguins and Islanders (Rob McGowan)

It got way out of hand as there were multiple line brawls. Matt Martin took a cheap shot on Talbot, which resulted in him getting suspended. However, New York would not stop until they were able to get to Talbot. Gillies inexplicably took a run at Eric Tangradi, which led to Haley getting a shot to fight Talbot and then getting a chance to fight goaltender Brent Johnson. In their previous meeting, Rick Dipietro broke a bone in his face after a fight with Johnson and Haley challenged the netminder on his way to the penalty box before Godard joined the scrap. It ended up costing the Islanders $100,000 for their actions, but times certainly changed after that.

Beginning of the Rise

It seemed like something was different about the Islanders following this. The following season, they advanced to the Stanley Cup playoffs as significant underdogs and lost a tight six-game playoff series. They again reached the playoffs in 2014-15 in their final season at the Coliseum before the team moved to Brooklyn. Once again, despite playing the Washington Capitals, the Islanders took this series to seven games and were nearly a bounce or two away from making it to the second round.

John Tavares (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That summer, Snow made a big splash acquiring both Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk in a spare of hours before the start of the 2015-16 season. The team finished with 100 points for a second-straight year. They then advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 23 years. After scoring an overtime winner in the Washington series, Tavares closed the series against the Florida Panthers with a winner in the second overtime. Both Thomas Hickey and Alan Quine also won games for the Islanders in the extra session. They led 1-0 in their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 2, but eventually fell, losing their next four games.

Trotz/Lamoriello Affect

Right before the Islanders lost Tavares, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a young core stepped up in Mat Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier. The mixture of veterans as well with Jordan Eberle and Josh Bailey and solid defense helped the team. They hired both former Stanley Cup Champions in Barry Trotz as the head coach and Lou Lamoriello as the general manager 

New York Islanders Josh Bailey
New York Islanders right wing Josh Bailey is hugged by teammates (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

In a year that many experts thought the Islanders were at the bottom of the league, they shocked everyone by finishing in second place in their first season back at a renovated Coliseum. Their new home in Belmont going to be built soon. The Islanders swept Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in one of the most dominating series New York had had since the early 1980’s.

Related: Reviewing the New York Islanders’ 2014 Draft

They also had the story of the season in net with Robin Lehner. A year before his performance in the playoffs, he went through a rough time with mental illness and responded by winning the Jennings Trophy with Thomas Greiss in Trotz’s first year with the Islanders. They eventually went on to lose in Round 2, but have built the franchise back up to where it was in the 1980s when the team won four-straight Stanley Cups.

The Islanders will look to continue to build on on their recent success. They went on and got what they needed in a third-line center with Jean-Gabriel Pageau. They struggled before the league was shut down, but could be looking at another matchup with the Panthers in the playoffs, with the new format of 24 teams being talked about.