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Islanders’ defense has improved under Trotz, but goalies are the difference

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The New York Islanders are a different team than they were a year ago in pretty much every significant way.

From a personnel standpoint the changes are obvious.

John Tavares is gone after heading to the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency, leaving second-year sensation Mathew Barzal as the new franchise cornerstone.

The key decision makers in the organization have been changed with big names. Lou Lamoriello replaced Garth Snow in the general manager role, and they have the reigning Stanley Cup winning coach (Barry Trotz) calling the shots behind their bench.

They are even back to playing games at the Nassau Coliseum on a semi-regular basis.

Given that the Islanders have probably exceeded expectations so far this season and are one of the hottest teams in the league entering play on Saturday night (9-2-1 in their past 12 games) those changes are getting a little extra light shined on them.

Perhaps the most stunning turnaround for the Islanders through the first half of the season has been their play defensively, because it is pretty much a night and day difference from where they were a year ago.

The 2017-18 Islanders were one of the worst defensive teams in recent league memory by giving up an almost unheard of 3.57 goals per game. It was a mark that was not only (by far) the worst in the NHL during the 2017-18 season, but was one of the six worst marks over the previous 20 years.

There was no major defensive category where they were not among the worst in the league, if not the worst.

One of the things that has stood out about the Islanders this season is the fact they have gone from being one of the absolute worst defensive teams to — at least as it relates to goals against — one of the best.

Entering Saturday the Islanders are allowing just 2.56 goals per game this season which is the second lowest total in the league, trailing only a Stanley Cup contender in Nashville. The natural reaction to that improvement is to point in the direction of Trotz for his system and the way he has the Islanders playing.

There does appear to be some truth to that.

Some being the big word here because it’s easy to let a narrative run away from you in a situation like this.

First, Trotz is an extremely successful coach whose resume in the NHL speaks for itself. Ultimately, he knows what he’s doing so it’s not totally out of the question to think any team coached by him would show improvement, and there is evidence to suggest there has been improvement. Let’s take a look at three sets of numbers here relating to the Islanders’ defensive performance (shots against, shot attempts against, goals against, scoring chances against, and high-danger scoring chances against) from the first half of this season, the first half of the 2017-18 season, and the full 2017-18 season.

That is definitely better, and in some areas significantly better. Giving up five fewer shots (and a decrease in scoring chances against) per game over the course of a season can really add up. But it’s not going to add up enough to take a team from dead last in the league in goals against to the top-two without some stellar play from the goaltenders.

That is where the real change for the Islanders is this season.

What sunk the Islanders a year ago wasn’t just the fact they were a team that was constantly bleeding shots against. That was a big part of it for sure, but it was also the fact they received some truly horrific goaltending from Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss that was barely above .900 for the season. Put those two things together and, well, you have the worst defensive hockey team the NHL has seen in 20 years.

How much has the goaltending impacted their performance this season? Even if they experienced the same improvement defensively under Trotz and were getting the same performance in net they would have already given up an additional 20 goals this season. An additional 20 goals over 39 games takes their goals against per game average from 2.56 (second best in the league) all the way to 3.10 (20th in the league). You think they are still flirting with a playoff spot in early January with that kind of defensive showing? No chance.

Greiss has had a wonderful bounce back season in a platoon role, while Robin Lehner, who joined the Islanders on a one-year, $1.5 million contract in free agency, has been one of the biggest steals of the season as the other half of that platoon. His .929 save percentage is tops in the NHL among goalies that have appeared in at least 20 games this season.

This is the true difference-maker for the Islanders this season (perhaps with a little influence from new goalie coach Mitch Korn?).

It’s not necessarily a culture change. It’s not that they are better without Tavares (the offense certainly is not). It’s not even so much that Barry Trotz is that much of a better coach than Doug Weight (though, I don’t think anybody would argue that he isn’t an upgrade).

It is that they have made some incremental improvements defensively and have received All-Star level goaltending from two players they probably weren’t expecting it from at the most important position on the ice.

How long they are able to do that will determine where this season goes for the Islanders.

They still give up a concerning number of shots and chances and don’t score enough to make up for it when (or if) the goaltending regresses. Keep in mind the Islanders had almost the exact same record at this point a year ago before an extensive second-half losing streak ruined their shot at the playoffs. If they want to avoid that sort of second half meltdown again they are going to need Lehner and Greiss to keep playing like their most valuable players.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

The Buzzer: Amazing Mrazek; Red-hot Rielly

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Three Stars

1. Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes headed into 2019-20 as the Hurricanes analytics darlings, a team that hogged the puck with considerable greed for the vulcanized rubber. Before them, the Kings were in a similar boat as a team that would often horde the Corsi and Fenwick, even while not always dominating the standings in the same way.

Maybe Tuesday was fitting, then, for how these two teams are moving in different directions. When Jonathan Quick isn’t in the net facing an existential crisis and Jack Campbell is looking like a first-rounder about a decade late, the Kings are proving to be a tougher-than-expected out.

That was the case against Carolina, as Los Angeles managed a 31-23 shots on goal advantage against a Hurricanes team that recently kept the dangerous Lightning without a SOG during a full period.

Despite that edge, the Kings couldn’t beat Mrazek, who pitched a 31-save shutout.

Mrazek’s off to a 4-0-0 start despite being mostly mediocre before Tuesday, and in a way, that’s scarier for the Hurricanes’ opponents. If they can win most nights just by denying possession to opponents, but occasionally get a gem from Mrazek, how scary can Carolina become?

2. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

Yes, Morgan “Typo” Rielly plays for a fast-paced, talented team like the Maple Leafs. He certainly gets to baste his stats in secondary helpers, and generally get access to opportunities that a comparable defenseman might not on a more tortoise-speed-like team would not.

Still, it’s hard not to shake your head in awe at Rielly’s 72 points from last season. That’s the sort of year that could make forwards unaffordable for their current team.

While his production has been streaky – Rielly failed to score in his previous three games before Tuesday – the talented blueliner had himself a night, collecting an assist on all four of the Maple Leafs’ goals in a 4-2 win against the Wild. That boosts him to nine points – all assists – in seven games so far this season, giving Rielly more fuel for a Norris argument — or at least a really big raise once his $5M cap hit expires after 2021-22.

The only thing that keeps him from being Tuesday’s top star is that all four of his assists were (wait for it) secondary ones.

3. Alexander Edler, Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks had some nice contestants in their 5-1 win against the Red Wings, including Brock Boeser (three assists) and J.T. Miller (two goals).

Edler gets the edge via his one-goal, two-assist night. For one thing, his goal was a game-winner. For another, Boeser piled up three secondary assists, while Edler had one primary and two secondary. Edler also fired three SOG, delivered three hits, and blocked four shots in an consummate 25 minutes of ice time on Tuesday night.

Highlight of the Night

The move Viktor Arvidsson made to set up Calle Jarnkrok‘s goal was really something else, and a reminder that Arvidsson is more than just a very nice (and remarkably underpaid) sniper.

If that’s not enough, enjoy some howitzers from Jeff Petry and Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay’s 3-1 win against Montreal (more on that here).

The latest Marc-Andre Fleury oopsie

MAF is good for, what, four of these per season?

Factoids

  • Via NHL PR, Reilly’s four assists – all in the second period – match the franchise record for most in a single period, tying Rick Vaive, who managed the feat in 1984. Sportsnet notes that Brock Boeser’s three assists in the second period is the most since Henrik Sedin managed as many Feb. 18, 2012.
  • The Hurricanes’ 6-1-0 record marks the best start in franchise history, according to NHL PR.
  • One more from NHL PR: Filip Forsberg extended his season-opening point streak to six games, sharing the Predators’ franchise record held by Marek Zidlicky.

Scores

TOR 4 – MIN 2
TBL 3 – MTL 1
ARI 4 – WPG 2
CGY 3 – PHI 1
NSH 5 – VGK 2
VAN 5 – DET 1
CAR 2 – LAK 0

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning show off quick-strike offense in win over Canadiens

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The Tampa Bay Lightning entered the 2019-20 NHL regular season with an obvious chip on their shoulders. Despite winning 62 games last year and running away with the Presidents’ trophy, a first-round sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 playoffs left a perennial championship contender with something to prove.

On Wednesday evening, the Lightning reminded the Montreal Canadiens, and the rest of the NHL, that they have the ability to strike at a moment’s notice. Braydon Coburn, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson each lit the lamp in the span of 2:08 to lead the Bolts to a 3-1 victory over the Habs.

Andrei Vasilevskiy recorded 33 saves and Nikita Kucherov added two assists as the Lightning captured their third win of the season. Tampa Bay heads to Boston Thursday to conclude an early six-game road trip.

Jeff Petry opened the scoring for Montreal with a power-play blast at 15:46 of the first period. Max Domi assisted on the play and has picked up six points (three goals, three assists) in the previous four games. But the Lightning answered with a surge of their own.

Coburn tallied the equalizer late in the first period when his shot from the high slot sailed past Carey Price at 19:53 of the opening period. Then, Stamkos and Johnson scored early in the second period to give Tampa Bay full control of the contest.

The Lightning have so much offensive firepower, but they have to caution themselves against relying on their quick-strike ability.

Stamkos led by example on the ice, notching two points, but also sent his teammates a minor warning through the media following a loss on October 6 against the Hurricanes.

“We just continue to be the freewheeling team that thinks that we can just come into games and win because we’re skilled,” Stamkos told reporters. “We keep falling back into the same old bad habits that we’ve been doing, that cost us the season we had last year. Unless we change things, it’s going to be a really, really, really long year.”

The Lightning have not gotten off to the smoothest of starts this season, posting a 3-2-1 record and somehow finding themselves on the outside of the Eastern Conference Playoff picture on the young season.

In the past two years, the Metropolitan Division has supplied both wild card teams in the East, but this year figures to be different with several changes in the Atlantic. The Buffalo Sabres are off to a tremendous start with Ralph Krueger behind the bench. In Florida, the Panthers made a number of offseason additions and brought in three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville. Additionally, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins expect to be near the top of the standings when it is all said and done.

From the Lightning perspective, the division will be much more competitive, and a slow start could have big ramifications in terms of playoff positioning, making this early Wednesday Night Hockey game more important than it is viewed on the surface.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

El Paso Rhinos on rallying community after tragedy

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As you can see from the video above, NBC’s Anson Carter took a look at how the El Paso Rhinos responded to the Aug. 3, 2019 tragedy that claimed the lives of 22 people and injured at least 24 more.

Along with donating $10K, the Rhinos added proceeds stemming from a game against Mexico’s National Under-20 team on Sept. 28 and 29. Between the game and charitable jersey auctions afterward, Carter notes that the Rhinos almost doubled those $10K contributions.

One of the video’s best moments came when Carter revealed that, with the help of Bauer and the NHL and NHLPA’s industry growth fund, there’s a donation of 20 hockey gloves to Mexico’s National Under-20 team. You can see their head coach Diego De La Garma wearing what are apparently New Jersey Devils-themed gloves:

More on that here:

Good stuff, and another reminder that sports can often bring people together after tragic events.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stuck on zero: Notable NHL players still searching for first goal

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We are a couple of weeks into the 2019-20 NHL season and there have been some surprising players at the top of the goal-scoring leaderboard, including James Neal, Anthony Mantha, Victor Olofsson, Brayden Schenn, and Erik Haula.

Perhaps just as surprising is the list of players still searching for their first goal, fighting through extended early season slumps.

Every player will go through hot streaks and cold streaks over the course of a season, and when those streaks happen now we tend to pay extra attention to them because there is nothing else around them to hide them. A first line player stuck on zero goals after six or seven games will stick out more than a six-or seven-game drought in the middle of March.

Here are eight notable players still trying to find that first goal. We are limiting this to players that have played in at least six games.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights
Games played entering Tuesday:
6
Shots on goal: 16

After scoring 67 goals over the past two seasons Karlsson has gone six games without a goal to open the 2019-20 season. The good news for him: He started each of the past two seasons with zero goals in his first six games before scoring in his seventh game each year.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 14

Barkov has become one of the NHL’s best all-around players over the past couple of years and is one of the reasons for optimism in Florida. He has not scored yet this season but he is doing literally everything else, having already recorded five assists while the Panthers are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts when he is on the ice. Only a matter of time before the puck starts finding the back of the net for him.

Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 13

Getting a full season of Niederreiter is a big reason to like the Hurricanes this season. He was a significant addition in the middle of the 2018-19 season and is an outstanding two-way winger that can defend, drive possession, and help create offense. He is still helping to drive possession at an elite rate. He is not a big-time goal-scorer, but he is always a lock for at least 20 goals.

Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars
Games played entering Tuesday: 7
Shots on goal: 10

The Stars have been one of the league’s most disappointing teams so far and Pavelski might be their most disappointing player through the first seven games. Not only as he failed to score a goal, but only generating 10 shots on goal in seven games is a concerning sign. Some regression had to be expected from his 38-goal campaign a year ago (he had a career-high shooting percentage at age 34, which was never going to be repeated) but this has to be discouraging. He also has just one assist.

Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 21 (combined)

The two recent No. 1 overall picks are two of the most important players on the Devils’ roster from a big picture outlook, and so far both have struggled. Hughes has failed to record a point in his first six games and can not seem to buy a goal. Just another thing that has gone wrong for the Devils in a season where nothing has gone as expected.

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 6

Schwartz had a bizarre 2018-19 season, struggling through one of the worst regular season performances of his career (mostly due to a terrible shooting percentage) before being unstoppable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The trouble for Schwartz this season (unlike last season) is he is not yet generating shots.

Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 4

The Flames will try to sell you on the idea he is doing exactly what they want, providing physical play and serving as some sort of protection for their stars. But man, zero goals, zero points, only four shots on goal, a lot of penalty minutes, a huge contract, and the guy he was traded for (James Neal) can not stop scoring goals for their biggest rival. There is no way that trade is a win at this point.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.