For the second straight season, head coach Barry Trotz’s New York Islanders are proving the doubters wrong. This time around, despite all appearances, they’ve got a shot at surprising to an even greater degree by winning the Metropolitan.
Islanders Have Hill to Climb
It may not look good, as the third-place, 27-12-4 Islanders sit seven points behind the division-leading Washington Capitals. They’ve got three games in hand though, meaning there’s a realistic chance at catching them and the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins (who have a single point more than the Islanders with one more game played).
Granted, it’s better to have the points in the bank than to still have to earn them. However, it’s worth noting that the Islanders have two more games to go against the Caps left this season (one more against the Penguins). So, looks can be deceiving… in more ways than one.
It’s true, on paper the Islanders aren’t much to look at with leading scorer Mathew Barzal’s 37 points ranking outside the top 50 in the league. That means, on average, most squads in the 31-team NHL have not one, but two players with more points than Barzal.
However, in the Islanders’ defense, they have also given up the least amount of goals of the three Metropolitan contenders. In fact, the Islanders have given up fewer markers than 29 of the 30 other teams in the league (Dallas Stars) on the strength of a relatively successful no-name defense (13th-ranked 31.4 shots against) and the underrated goaltending tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss.
Varlamov Shines with Islanders
It’s almost their ace in the hole. Capitals starter Braden Holtby’s struggles have continued. The Penguins keep playing Matt Murray despite Tristan Jarry being the clear choice. Even the Carolina Hurricanes, who are in fourth place in the division, two points back of the Islanders with two more games played, face a goaltending dilemma. They don’t know whether they’ll get NHL or American Hockey League-caliber goaltending out of Petr Mrazek or James Reimer on any given night.
As TSN.ca’s Travis Yost notes, superior goaltending is a hallmark of Trotz-coached teams. So, perhaps it’s no coincidence Varlamov has enjoyed somewhat of a career renaissance under him, after losing the starter’s job with the Colorado Avalanche. While there’s a good argument the Islanders should ride Varlamov, Thomas Greiss continues to enjoy success as one of the most effective 1B goalies in the game. Both deserve credit.
It’s almost fitting Trotz would platoon his goalies in and out, as Jacques Lemaire, another multi-Jack Adams Award-winning coach, helped to popularize the strategy during his years with the Minnesota Wild. Lemaire was similarly known for his cookie-cutter system in which anyone could find success, as long as they were willing to stick to and not deviate from the game plan.
Trotz vs. Lemaire
Both coaches famously helped the New Jersey Devils/ Capitals take the next step and eventually capture the Stanley Cup before moving on to their next jobs. There are of course a few differences, though. The most relevant one for this piece’s purposes is how, unlike during Lemaire’s tenure with the Wild, the Islanders have a chance to make noise in the playoffs in consecutive postseasons.
You see, under Lemaire, the Wild only made the playoffs in two straight seasons once, exiting in the first round each time. The Islanders of course made it to the second round last spring and at the very least have the potential to do more damage.
It’s nevertheless hard to give the Islanders the edge behind the bench. After all, Todd Reirden, an associate under Trotz during the former’s time with the Caps, hasn’t exactly been a slouch this season or last as his successor (despite the Round 1 defeat to the Hurricanes).
Meanwhile, say what you want about the understated value of injured Islanders such as Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech. There’s still no denying Mike Sullivan continues to get more out of the Pittsburgh Penguins, despite a host of higher-profile injuries, such as the one to Sidney Crosby.
That’s admittedly because Sullivan arguably has more with which to start, though. To illustrate the point, look at how these specific Islanders have performed so far. So, forget “more.” With nary a superstar among them, is there any doubt Trotz has been able to get the absolute most out of them that anyone else in his position could have?
Maybe that’s not worth a second-consecutive Jack Adams. However, considering where the Islanders ended last season and where they are right now, right in the thick of it, it isn’t luck. It’s a fighting chance.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.