100 regular-season games have occurred with head coach Barry Trotz’s systems in place on Long Island. The New York Islanders have won well over half of those games with solid goaltending, middle-of-the-pack scoring, and great defense. After a successful 2018-19 season, much of the hockey world still discounted the Islanders, finding faults in their offense (which is fair) and questioning the sustainability of their defense and goaltending.
The Islanders’ season started slow, prompting fans and pundits alike to wonder if last season was indeed too good to be true. Fast forward five weeks and the Islanders are in the midst of a 13-0-1 run that continued Saturday night in a come-from-behind win against the Philadelphia Flyers. Following that game, the Islanders are starting to get a fair shake in the media and from players, coaches, and general managers around the league.
And while there’s so much that’s contributed to the team’s success over the last 100 regular-season games, two things stick out that have allowed the team to take another step this season. The first is the growth of Mathew Barzal’s game and the second is the organization’s ability to plug-in players from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers without missing a beat.
Barzal Continues to Evolve
After winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie during the 2017-18 campaign, Mathew Barzal’s point production took a step back during the 2018-19 season under Trotz. That’s to be expected considering the type of emphasis Trotz puts on defensive responsibilities from players throughout the lineup. Add to that the pressure of being the team’s number one center following the departure of John Tavares, and you could understand the slight dip in points.
Barzal’s offensive game centers around puck possession. His masterful vision and skating allows him to circle, shift, and find seams in the opposing team’s defense to make a play. His playmaking ability makes him dangerous, but as the No. 1 center and two full seasons under his belt, Barzal and Trotz knew he needed to add another element to his game to become less predictable.
That element was shooting the puck more. According to a recent article in The Athletic by Shayna Goldman that discussed Barzal’s evolution this season through the team’s first 16 games, the change in his game is clear.
“One of the reasons for Barzal’s scoring boost is simple: He’s shooting the puck more. He has 72 shot attempts in all-situations. If he’s able to maintain that rate, he’d be close to 350 attempts by season’s end. He fell short of 300 in each of his first two years. “From “How it’s all coming together for Mathew Barzal in Year Three with the Islanders” The Athletic, 11/13/2019
An important part of this addition, according to Newsday’s Andrew Gross, was a slight change in his stick.
“I just made it a little whippier and changed my curve a little bit, put a little more hook on it,” Barzal said. “Not too drastic, just a little nick on it. It gives me a little toe to suck it in and shoot it a little better.”From “Playmaker Mathew Barzal becomes more of a goalmaker” Newsday – 11/02/2019
Barzal is also getting himself in different positions on the ice to shoot the puck, specifically on the powerplay. As you can see in the GIF below, Barzal sees the play developing on the half-wall and pops out from the weak-side to the high-slot with his stick on the ice ready to receive Brock Nelson’s pass.
It is plays like this, and many other adjustments to Barzal’s game, that has helped take his production to another level this season and made the Islanders’ offense a legitimate threat.
Next Man Up Mentality
On paper, the Islanders forward group looked thin to start the season, particularly its middle-six. Then came the injuries, forcing Trotz to shuffle the lines and insert call-ups from Bridgeport. Luckily, the way the team is coached and the type of players they’ve been able to collect in the AHL, the Islanders haven’t missed a beat throughout this run. In fact, Jordan Eberle, who rides shotgun with Barzal, was out for the majority of the Islanders’ current streak, returning in a 2-1 victory against the Florida Panthers.
In addition to Eberle, Casey Cizikas, Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Martin, and Leo Komarov all spent time out of the lineup, creating an opportunity for younger players within the Islanders organization.
Oliver Wahlstrom and Cole Bardreau made the most of their opportunities with the Islanders and proved to the coaches and management they could be trusted with NHL minutes. Bardreau, a career minor-leaguer with over 200 AHL games under his belt, even played the role of hero, scoring his first NHL goal on a penalty shot that proved to be the game-winner against the Ottawa Senators.
In addition to injuries, Trotz has also moved Derick Brassard to the wing, opening up the third-line center position for discussion. Most recently against the Flyers, Otto Koivula, making his NHL debut centered Michael Dal Colle and Ross Johnston on that line.
The Islanders and their forever changing lineup hope to continue their winning ways on Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a chance to tie the franchise’s point-streak record set during the 1981-82 season.