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.

 

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.