Heading into the 2018-19 season, everyone was sure the New York Islanders would be in the Eastern Conference basement at season’s end. After the departure of John Tavares and questionable offseason acquisitions, no one – including myself – believed incoming general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz could take the Islanders to the next level. After a slow start, we were all proved wrong, and the Islanders had a memorable season. Even with a sweep at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, there is plenty to be excited about on Long Island.
As the season approached, one of the biggest question marks for the Islanders was goaltending. Thomas Greiss was coming off a down season and no one knew what to expect from Robin Lehner. Many thought that goaltending coach Mitch Korn could help these two young goalies, but the on-ice results this past season were above everyone’s expectations.
Greiss, currently the only Islanders goalie signed for next season, is heading into the final year of his contract. Rumors continue to float around about the Islanders’ interest in Sergei Bobrovsky, but there’s plenty of reason to bring back Lehner. Greiss seems to be at his best when he’s playing between 40 and 50 games in a season. Would Bobrovsky be alright with that type of deployment, a system that worked for the Islanders so well this season?
The Islanders’ defensive core has been largely intact for a few seasons, with less than desirable results during the 2017-18 campaign. This season, after the infusion of structure by the coaching staff led by Trotz, this group looked much different. The league’s worst defense was transformed into the league’s best, cutting their goals against by 100 from 2017-18 to 2018-19.
There was even a dose of healthy competition in the lineup after Thomas Hickey recovered from his injury. Devon Toews rarely looked out of place, forcing Hickey to watch a majority of the games from the press box until Johnny Boychuk went down with an injury during the Islanders’ first-round matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With the exception of Boychuk, everyone on the back-end is under 30 years old and has a more than a reasonable contract moving forward. Ryan Pulock is a season away from being a Restricted Free Agent, with Adam Pelech needing a new contract for the 2020-21 season. This group, made up of largely home-grown talent, appears to have a bright future together. It’s safe to say this group will stay largely intact moving forward.
It would be easy to look at the current group of Islanders forwards and get the feeling that many of them underachieved this season, with the exception of Casey Cizikas and Brock Nelson. Mathew Barzal dropped 20 points from his rookie campaign and captain Anders Lee’s goal total slipped to 28 from 40 just a season ago. But that perspective wouldn’t be taking everything into account. For the first time in many, many seasons, the Islanders played a structured game on both ends of the ice, finding ways to win close, low-scoring games.
Looking toward to next season, this forward group may see some changes. There are a lot of quality, unrestricted free agent forwards available this summer, among them three Islanders players: Lee, Nelson, and Jordan Eberle. With forwards like Artemi Panarin on the market, Eberle may be the odd man out in this situation. However, his strong play in the first round of this season’s playoffs made a strong case to continue playing alongside Barzal. Eberle’s services will be sought as the dominoes begin to fall and the Islanders could be a suitor if they fail to land one of the big names.
The 2018-19 Islanders gave fans hope and optimism for the future. Can they keep moving forward or will they regress? There are a lot of roster decisions to be made, but if we learned anything this season, it’s that coach Trotz can mold nearly any team into a winner.
Jon Zella is a 31-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.