The 2018-19 NHL season for the New York Islanders was a resounding success on so many levels.
Picked by the hockey universe to be bottom feeders after the disappointing loss of team captain John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs (bed sheets and all), newly-anointed general manager Lou Lamoriello countered with very few moves.
However, naming Barry Trotz as head coach – fresh off of winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals – appeared to be the most important as his staff provided a level of structure to Long Island’s, and Brooklyn’s, hockey club not seen since the legendary days of Al Arbour and Bill Torrey.
Transformation Was Immediate and Stunning
- Team’s goals against sliced by 100
- Most wins (48) and points (103) in 35 years
- Fifth-best record in NHL; highest league standing in 35 years
- Goalie tandem won Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed; last time for franchise was 1982-83 season
- Home-ice advantage in a playoff series for the first time since 1988
- They swept a playoff series for first time in 36 years, their last Cup-winning year
- Coach Barry Trotz won the Jack Adams Award
- Goaltender Robin Lehner won the Masterton Trophy for his courageous season
The only things missing from those gaudy franchise feats is the name Mike Bossy – the legendary sniper during the 1980’s dominance as well as franchise leader in goals – and hoisting the Stanley Cup. For even with Trotz’s motto, “If you want to go somewhere fast, go alone. If you want to go far, do it as a group,” the collective buy-in was swept away by the Carolina Hurricanes’ storm surge in the conference semifinals.
The quick exit highlighted the need for a Bossy-type goal scorer. Sensing this, Lamoriello apparently laid out a lot of dough for the “breadman,” Artemi Panarin, only to see the rival New York Rangers win the coveted free agent. The Islanders’ new arena in Belmont, coupled with the continued culture change and on-ice success, should make them more attractive to big name players.
Right now, pretty much the same roster that was 21st (out of 31) in goals scored is set for next season. Anders Lee – last season’s team-leader with 28 – signed a new seven-year $49-million contract late in day one of the free agent signing period, avoiding the embarrassment of losing their captain in consecutive seasons. Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle – second and fourth, respectively, in goals scored – signed team-friendly deals.
The Islanders brain trust readily admits that they will not sneak up on the opposition as they did last season. So, the best way to eliminate any step back in what’s looking like a highly competitive Metropolitan Division is to see the newly-acquired Semyon Varlamov at least equal Lehner’s efforts – by the way, kudos to both he and Lamoriello for how they’ve publicly handled the potential public relations nightmare contract negotiations that resulted in Lehner signing with the Chicago Blackhawks after his heartening season.
The defense will again have to remain nearly impenetrable and additional goal support will have to come internally from the likes of Michael Dal Colle (career high of three in 2018-19), Anthony Beauvillier (48 in three full seasons), or Casey Cizikas (career-high 20 last season, previous high was nine). The Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the AHL also provides Joshua Ho-Sang (more a playmaker than goal scorer), Otto Koivula (big Finnish forward netted 21 in his first season in North America), or perhaps we see the seasoning of expected snipers Kieffer Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom expedited in training camp.
Most Likely Scenario is Via Trade
Defense is an area of strength and excess for the Islanders throughout the organization. Their Sebastian Aho (75 points in 107 AHL games) and Noah Dobson (who Lamoriello says will push for a job in camp) are likely blue line replacements should any members of last season’s stingy defense corps get dealt for a scoring forward.
In over a year at the helm, Lamoriello hasn’t really put his stamp on the team via players changing cities. This could be perceived as somewhat of a backhanded compliment to the previous regime, who also got to the conference semifinals in 2016, but clearly there’s a different feel. The Hall of Famer and architect of three Cup-winning New Jersey Devils teams believes in using as much time as needed to make a decision, while also operating in extreme secrecy.
Clearly he sees the glaring need, now we’re just waiting for the Islanders’ version of that Cory Schneider or Ilya Kovalchuk trade to sneak up on us. Or perhaps a Scott Stevens-like contractual loophole that allowed him to snatch the rugged blueliner from the St. Louis Blues that this time may turn out to be a nifty forward from the Maple Leafs with the initials MM. Or maybe even a slight risk could be skilled Russian center Nikita Gusev with the cap-strapped Vegas Golden Knights.
Lamoriello could play it somewhat safe and get intangible players that continue Trotz’s goal scoring by committee policy by signing free agents like Micheal Ferland, Marcus Johnasson, Ryan Dzingel, or even Brian Boyle as stop gaps until something else comes along.
Across social media, some still waiting-for-the-next-shoe-to-drop fans are so traumatized that they’re becoming impatient with Lamoriello. Perhaps they’re panicked by the ghost of Don Maloney, the team’s GM who, in the summer of 1993, let Glenn Healy walk after backstopping the Isles to the conference finals in favor of Ron Hextall. That resulted in Healy winning a Cup with the Rangers – he backed up Mike Richter – while Hextall was traded off Long Island the following season.
In no way does any of that faze Lamoriello.
We’d all be wise to keep an eye on whatever he does next.