If the New York Islanders are going to accomplish anything this season, they will have to do it as underdogs. They failed to qualify for the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and after John Tavares’ departure for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, the odds are against the Islanders to return to the postseason.
Roster-wise there isn’t any reason to expect the team to be better this season. They are projected to finish in the bottom-five or bottom-10 for those who are feeling optimistic. However, the Islanders are embracing their underdog role and if the Vegas Golden Knights or even the Colorado Avalanche taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen. In today’s NHL, a team in its inaugural expansion season can come three wins shy of the Stanley Cup and the last place team can make the playoffs one year later.
“I think we’re kind of put in a category right now where we’re kind of the underdog role, and sometimes that’s good to be,” Jordan Eberle told Brian Compton of NHL.com. “You look at a team like maybe New Jersey last year, who had similar expectations coming in, and look how well they did. Sometimes you play better without that added pressure. We’ve got enough guys to fill depth here, and guys are going to fill in and we’ll be fine.”
Key Roster Additions
Leo Komarov (a four-year deal worth $12 million)
- Valtteri Filppula (a one-year deal worth $2.75 million)
- Jan Kovar (a one-year deal worth $2 million)
- Robin Lehner (a one-year deal worth $1.5 million)
- Matt Martin (aquired from the Maple Leafs for G Eamon McAdam)
- Tom Kühnhackl (a one-year deal worth $700,000)
Key Roster Losses
- John Tavares (Maple Leafs)
- Calvin de Haan (Carolina Hurricanes)
- Jaroslav Halak (Boston Bruins)
- Chris Wagner (Bruins)
- Nikolay Kulemin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk, KHL)
- Alan Quine (Calgary Flames)
- Shane Prince (HC Davos, National League)
- Brandon Davidson (PTO with the Chicago Blackhawks)
2018 NHL Draft:
- Oliver Wahlstrom (1st round, 11th overall)
- Noah Dobson (1st round, 12th overall)
- Bode Wilde (2nd round, 41st overall)
- Ruslan Iskhakov (2nd round, 43rd overall)
- Jakub Skarek (3rd round, 72nd overall)
- Jacob Pivonka (4th round 103rd overall)
- Blade Jenkins (5th round, 134th overall)
- Christian Krygier (7th round, 196th overall)
Leading up to Jul. 1, things were looking better than ever for the Islanders. After a historically bad season, the team hired Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations and gave him full control of the team. Shortly after, he relieved head coach Doug Weight and general manager Garth Snow of their duties, replacing Weight with Barry Trotz, fresh off a Stanley Cup championship with the Washington Capitals, and named himself general manager.
If Tavares was considering staying with Snow and Weight in charge, there’s no way he’d want to leave now. That’s what you’d think at least. However, Jul. 1 came and Tavares still hadn’t signed an extension. Instead, he signed a seven-year, $77 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Despite the loss of the team’s captain and franchise player, Lamoriello continued the culture change by bringing in several well-respected names including Lane Lambert (associate coach), Mitch Korn (director of goaltending), Piero Greco (goaltending coach), John Gruden (assistant coach), Steve Pellegrini (assistant general manager), Jacques Lemaire (special assignment coach), and others with impressive résumés.
#18 Anthony Beauvillier – #13 Mathew Barzal – #7 Jordan Eberle
#27 Anders Lee – #29 Brock Nelson – #12 Josh Bailey
#16 Andrew Ladd – #10 Jan Kovar – #26 Josh Ho-Sang
#47 Leo Komarov – #53 Casey Cizikas – #15 Cal Clutterbuck
Extras: #51 Valtteri Filppula and #17 Matt Martin
*Season previews on Barzal, Lee, and Kovar written by The Hockey Writers’ Mike Petersell*
Mathew Barzal faces heightened expectations and greater pressure this season. High expectations will come from a fan base looking for him to repeat or improve on his historic Calder-winning rookie year. The pressure will come from opposing teams who have a full season of tape with which to prepare to play against him.
Without being shielded behind Tavares, as he was last season, Barzal will face the best checkers and top defensive pairings in the league on every shift. To counteract this, Trotz will have him start with his linemates from last year. Their speed and rapport on the ice will help Barzal get off to a good start.
Expectations are high for Anders Lee as well. After becoming the first Islander to reach the 40-goal mark since 2006-07, he will be counted on to continue to put the puck in the net consistently. This task is made more difficult by the fact that he’ll no longer be skating alongside an elite center.
Another challenge comes from the possible distraction of it being a contract year for Lee. The 27-year-old, big-bodied winger has made his living scoring goals from close range. Any team would be happy to add his talent and grit while he is still in the prime of his career. He will be due for a substantial raise from the $3.75 million per season he’s making now if the Islanders want to keep him. After the Islanders let Tavares walk away for nothing, Lamoriello is going to have to manage this situation carefully.
Lamoriello picked up several forwards this summer. Most of them are slotted to be either bottom-six or depth players. The one wild card in the bunch is KHL veteran, Jan Kovar. At 28 years old, Kovar brings a solid two-way game, playoff experience, and a track record of high-level success to the Islanders.
If he is able to adapt to the NHL, he can push his way onto the second line and play valuable minutes. He’s scored 286 points in 285 regular-season games in his KHL career, making him the one addition that could pick up some of the slack left by with Tavares’ departure.
#2 Nick Leddy – #55 Johnny Boychuk
#4 Thomas Hickey – #6 Ryan Pulock
#3 Adam Pelech – #28 Sebastian Aho
Extra: #24 Scott Mayfield
Last season was a rough one for Nick Leddy. Serving as the number one defenseman on the worst defensive team of the last decade, Leddy ended the season with a league-worst minus-42 rating.
Despite that, the 27-year-old still managed to score 10 goals and 42 points in 80 games. With new coaches and a new system, there is no reason to think that Leddy won’t bounce back this season. He’ll likely start the season paired with Johnny Boychuk.
As I said, Leddy will likely start the season with Boychuk but if Ryan Pulock can build on how he played in the final few months of last season, it won’t be long before Pulock leapfrogs Boychuk.
As a rookie, the 23-year-old scored 10 goals and 32 points in 68 games and was often the team’s best defenseman from February on. After signing a two-year bridge deal worth $4 million ($2 million AAV), the team hopes that he will succeed the 34-year-old Boychuk as a top pairing defenseman in the near future.
Sebastian Aho is on a two-way deal so it is possible he starts the season in Bridgeport with the Sound Tigers, but based on how he played last season, the 22-year-old deserves a spot in the lineup. In 22 games with the Islanders, Aho scored one goal and four points but his confidence and decision-making skills are what make him stand out.
Drafted by the Islanders 139th overall (fifth-round) in 2017, Aho went straight to the AHL and quickly adjusted to the North American game. When he wasn’t stabilizing the Islanders’ blue line he was dominating the competition in the league below, scoring nine goals and 29 points in 40 games with the Sound Tigers.
On Jul. 3 the Islanders signed goaltender Robin Lehner to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million and presumedly, he will be the team’s starter this season. He has a career record of 72-97-35, a 2.82 goals-against average (GAA), a .915 save percentage (SV%), eight shutouts and is coming off a 14-win year with the Sabres (3.01 GAA, .908 SV%, three shutouts).
Just before training camp, Lehner published a story, bravely talking about his struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder. After getting help and being diagnosed over the offseason, he says that he now looks forward to his first sober season, telling Andrew Gross of Newsday, “I’ve never felt better in my life. I finally have a diagnosis and there’s medication for it.”
Thomas Greiss, penciled in as Lehner’s backup for this season, is looking to bounce back from a bad season. Despite his decent 13-8-2 record, his numbers weren’t good enough as he finished the season with a 3.82 GAA, a .892 SV%, and just one shutout.
Not only are both goaltenders motivated to prove themselves, but they will have plenty of help throughout the season. This summer, the team brought in Mitch Korn as their director of goaltending and Piero Greco as their goaltending coach. Both men are coming off championship seasons; Greco won the Calder Cup with the Toronto Marlies and Korn hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Capitals.
Both have a successful track record and should pay dividends in their work with Lehner, Greiss, and any other goaltender that finds themselves with the big club.
Breakout Player: Brock Nelson
If Brock Nelson ever has a breakout season, may it be this one. Nelson has twice been a restricted free agent and both times the Islanders have re-signed him, avoiding arbitration this summer and signing a one-year deal worth $4.25 million. The deal means that after this season, Nelson will become an unrestricted free agent if he and the Islanders can’t reach a new deal before Jul. 1.
The preseason forward lines indicate that Nelson will be taking Tavares’ place. It appears that Barzal’s line will graduate from the second line to the first line and the Tavares line, with Lee and Bailey, will become the second with Nelson centering the two.
Last season, as the team’s third-line center, Nelson wasn’t consistent in terms of production or linemates. Now, the 26-year-old has the potential to find consistency with both, playing with Lee who put up 34 goals in the 2016-17 season and 40 in 2017-18 as well as Bailey, who is one of the best passers in the league with 53 assists and 71 points last season.
Nelson’s bid for a fourth-straight 20-goal season fell one shy last year but overall, the Warroad, Minnesota native has 99 goals and 188 points in 398 career games.
Player with Most to Prove: Josh Ho-Sang
Thanks to The Hockey Writers’ own, Mike Petersell for contributing his insight on Ho-Sang:
Josh Ho-Sang is the player in camp with the most to prove. There were questions about his professionalism and maturity right from the beginning when the Islanders selected him in the first round (28th overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. After a few incidents and some up and down play in Bridgeport, he finally made it onto the big club for the last 21 games of 2016-17 where his talent was on full display.
The fans were dazzled by his skating and pleasantly surprised by his ability to generate passes from anywhere and get them through to his intended target. Ho-Sang jerseys immediately began to appear in the stands.
Things changed the following season. His on-ice decisions started to look as questionable as his off-ice choices. Many of his passes surprised even his own linemates and were often intercepted leading to odd-man rushes and untimely goals. He went back into the Garth Snow/Doug Weight doghouse and after 22 games with the Islanders, found himself back in Bridgeport for the remainder of the season.
Snow and Weight have since moved on, relieved of their respective duties by Lamoriello. According to the new GM and coach combination of Lamoriello and Trotz, Ho-Sang begins the season with a clean slate. If he can stay disciplined and channel his abilities the right way, he has the potential to be an impact player.
With so many new faces both on and off the ice, it is hard to tell what we will be seeing from the New York Islanders this season. On paper, many experts and analysts expect them to be worse. However, a culture change is no small thing. New opinions, new systems, and new approaches to the way things are done are what Lamoriello and other front office moves bring to the table.
Jul. 1 was the date fans dreaded all of last season and their nightmares came true. But that’s in the past. Still, next Jul. 1 could also be another sad day as several Islanders are set to become unrestricted free agents: Lee, Eberle, Nelson, Lehner, Kovar, Filppula, and others.
Despite what many think, the Islanders have the potential to be better than last year and the potential to surprise. If a team is judged based on who has the best roster, why didn’t the Tampa Bay Lightning or Nashville Predators win the Stanley Cup? There’s more to it than names on a lineup card.
This team is good. They lost a very good player but they have an understudy waiting and last season he emerged out of the shadows. The defense is questionable as is the goaltending but even without Tavares, the scoring ability is there. If Trotz and the new coaching staff can fix up the defense with a new system and a new approach and if Greco and Korn can improve the play of Lehner and Greiss, you then have a team that can score and defend. That’s the name of the game.
2018-19 Record Prediction: 38-35-9, 85 points (6th in Metropolitan Division, 10th in Eastern Conference, 21th in NHL standings)