Islanders Can Be Serious Cup Contenders

The New York Islanders are off to one of their best starts in franchise history with a record of 19-6-2 about a third of the way through the season.

The Islanders built that record on a system based on strategic defense from all skaters, strong goaltending and sometimes playing a more conservative style of offense. Also, the team is finding ways to win hockey games even in multi-goal, come-from-behind ways. However, at the end of November, the Islanders hit a skid. New York is a well-rounded team, but are they a Stanley Cup contender right now? In a word, yes. However, there can be improvements in certain spots.

The Skaters

The young guns, Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, and Ryan Pulock have all had good starts to the season. Even rookies Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom (now in the American Hockey League) were getting chances early on. The youth movement is here and the time is now to get playoff experience in order for this next wave of talent to push the Islanders towards the Stanley Cup. However, other forwards in the lineup have to support Barzal’s production.

Other veterans like Brock Nelson and Derick Brassard have been doing much more than expected whereas Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle have been underperforming. Neither of them has had horrendous seasons, but you expect those two on the scoresheet a bit more than they have been. Eberle just got his first two goals of the season on Monday against the Detroit Red Wings.

Jordan Eberle New York Islanders
Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

One other issue is that Brassard was brought in as a third-line center but now has seen exponential success on the wing. If the team chooses to keep him on the wing, it suddenly lacks a third-line center. Leo Komarov has stepped up and played the position at times, but it’s less than ideal. In order to keep Brassard on the wing, New York must find a third-line center or a better winger for the second line.

Potential Roster Changes

So, looking specifically at the forwards, there are some holes that can be filled. A trade is certainly an option but the Islanders would have to consider the price. New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall would be a big splash, but at what cost? Will New Jersey even consider trading him within the division? Plus, is he the guy to push the Islanders to the next level? Historically, he couldn’t do that with the Edmonton Oilers or the Devils. The return for Hall is easily one or two first-round picks, an A-level prospect and potentially more. For a rental? No thank you.

Other names include Ottawa Senators forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Florida Panthers forward Mike Hoffman and Los Angeles Kings forward Tyler Toffoli. All three are unrestricted free agents in July and they will more than likely be cheaper than Hall. There’s also potential to re-sign the player brought in and keep the core of the team intact.

Jean−Gabriel Pageau Ottawa Senators
Ottawa Senators Jean-Gabriel Pageau (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

Pageau might be the big target and the Senators can demand whatever they want for him with the way he’s playing. This also wouldn’t be the first time he was involved in trade rumors. His 15 goals and strong two-way game would fit in well with Islanders’ head coach Barry Trotz’s system. Add in his 53 percent face-off rating and he becomes the perfect candidate for the Islanders third-line center position.

Another cheaper way to do things would be to add from within. Otto Koivula is with the team right now, but he doesn’t add much of a scoring punch just yet. The Islanders have forward prospects Wahlstrom and Kieffer Bellows in the pipeline. The only thing to do is make a roster spot available. That would require waiving someone or trading a player on the NHL roster for a pick or a prospect.

While this is cheaper, it really only makes sense to do this if Wahlstrom, Bellows or someone else is definitely ready to make the jump. The 2019-20 season is a third of the way over and, despite being in a bottom-six role, Michael Dal Colle still has only three points. It’s not worth rushing one of the prospects if they’re not ready to make the transition into the NHL.

Defense and Goaltending

Two constants the Islanders have had all year have been their defense and goaltending.

Most games, the defense is ready to go and makes simple, smart plays to force opponents to take low-danger shots along the perimeter of the defensive zone. With the forwards backchecking, it makes it easier for the defense to guard the slot, resulting in fewer goals. All the defensemen have played a big part in the Islanders’ defense, but specifically, Johnny Boychuk, Adam Pelech, and Devon Toews have played major roles. In addition to the defense, the goaltending has been top-notch.

Both Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov have been two of the steadiest goaltenders in the league. New York has given up four goals or more just six times in the 27 games they’ve played; only once have the Islanders given up four goals in a game they’ve won.

Thomas Greiss New York Islanders
Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Both Greiss and Varlamov have been outstanding individually and the goalie rotation is now at a franchise-high of 27 games to start the season. The Islanders are currently tied with the Boston Bruins for the least goals allowed in the league with 65. All of this combined with a defense-first system has been a strong backbone of the Islanders’ solid start.

Cup Contenders

Factoring all of this in, yes, the Islanders are Stanley Cup contenders. The younger players are leading the offense and the veterans are chipping in nicely. There could be an addition or change to the forward core to add an extra punch, but with the way the team plays with Trotz’s defensive system, New York can compete with anyone in the league.