Getty

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

5 Comments

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.

 

James van Riemsdyk on fatherhood, Flyers/NHL returning, and more

Leave a comment

Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk took a moment out of his day/put his car in park to chat with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” on Friday. You can watch the full video above this post’s headline.

JVR didn’t do much to peel back the curtain on return-to-play issues, but he provided some useful information nonetheless.

  • Maybe most relevantly, JVR told Tirico that he’ll be close to 100 percent if the Flyers actually get to return to play. Van Riemsdyk injured his finger back in March.

JVR and Tirico didn’t really go into this, but the 31-year-old winger was heating up toward the end of 2019-20. Things didn’t start that smoothly, as Van Riemsdyk only managed five goals and 11 points through his first 17 games. Considering the $7M per year investment the Flyers made, JVR probably heard some grumbles.

But he played some of his best hockey with a still-fairly-new team before the injury and the pandemic struck. JVR scored 29 of his season’s 40 points (and 14 of his 19 goals) through the last 39 games. An updated version of Bill Comeau’s SKATR chart captures how much better JVR has been overall in 2019-20 after a disappointing return season with Philly:

JVR SKATR
via Bill Comeau

As disruptive as the pandemic has been, it had to be nice for JVR to be there for such a life event. An eager Tirico also learned that JVR’s child already has Gritty slippers.

(Please send Gritty slippers. I’m already quite googly-eyed from quarantining, anyway. At least my belly button doesn’t change colors [yet] though.)

  • He didn’t elaborate much, but JVR hinted that players prefer reseeding over a bracketed playoff format.

Really, though, the low-fi nature of the video pushes it to another level. Few things humanize a person quite like doing an interview in a parking lot. (Been there, JVR, been there. Kind of.)

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.

USA Hockey president Jim Smith facing investigations

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
1 Comment

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Hockey president Jim Smith is the subject of two investigations surrounding his tenure as the president of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer confirmed Friday that the organization has hired an independent investigator to look into Smith’s business dealings with AHAI. Fischer also said the US Center for SafeSport is investigating allegations that Smith was aware of sexual misconduct by a coach and didn’t take action against him during Smith’s tenure with AHAI.

The Athletic first reported on the two investigations.

Fischer said the US Center for SafeSport’s investigation is regarding allegations that were made against Thomas Adrahtas, a youth hockey coach. The Athletic reported in February that multiple players said Adrahtas had abused them.

The US Center for SafeSport said in a statement that ”consistent with best practices and federal law, the Center does not discuss matters to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of the parties and any potential witnesses.”

Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. He told The Athletic through a spokesperson earlier this month that ”in my time as president of AHAI, there were no reports alleging misconduct by Tom Adrahtas.”

Founded in 1937, USA Hockey is an organization focused on the support and development of grass-roots hockey programs. Smith was unanimously elected as president by the organization’s board of directors in 2015. He was unanimously re-elected in 2018.

Ducks’ offensive woes extend to rare 2-year playoff drought

3 Comments

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The last time the Anaheim Ducks missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, they went all the way to their franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final just one year later.

Not many observers expect the current Ducks to duplicate the feats of those beloved 2002-03 Mighty Ducks after they complete another long offseason made even longer by the coronavirus pandemic.

These Ducks are still in full rebuilding mode after winning just 29 of their 71 games this season, including a Western Conference-worst 24 non-shootout victories. The Ducks were in sixth place in the Pacific Division standings primarily on the sturdy strength of goalies John Gibson and Ryan Miller, who bailed out their teammates all winter long.

Just three years after the Ducks reached the conference finals for the second time in three seasons, a long road back to Cup contention appears to loom in Orange County. Anaheim got largely disappointing performances from its collection of forwards – a star-free group outside captain Ryan Getzlaf – and the blue line was inconsistent while coach Dallas Eakins worked young talent into the lineup amid injuries and trade departures.

But during a second straight season without a playoff appearance – matching their total playoff-less seasons over the previous 13 years combined – Eakins and general manager Bob Murray saw signs of the team they want the Ducks to become. They’ll have an extra-long offseason to contemplate the next steps to get there.

”While we would have preferred to conclude our season normally and play 82 games, it became obvious over time that was not practical,” Murray said this week. ”We remain excited about our future and can’t wait for the 2020-21 season.”

SELDOM SCORING

Perhaps appropriately for a team with a long-standing reputation as an intimidating, defense-first organization, the Ducks’ biggest problems during their two-year playoff drought have been all about offense. Eakins was hired last summer to implement a speed-based system designed to produce more scoring opportunities, but it’s just not happening yet.

One season after Anaheim finished last in the NHL in goals, its minus-39 goal differential this season was the conference’s worst. Anaheim scored two or fewer regulation goals in a whopping 39 of its 71 games. Only Adam Henrique (26 goals) and Jakob Silfverberg (21) found the net with any frequency.

The Ducks’ problems ranged from Rickard Rakell‘s two-year regression to the disappointing numbers from youngsters who weren’t ready to produce at the highest level. Murray also curiously gave up on Ondrej Kase and Daniel Sprong in February, trading two young forwards with clear NHL-caliber scoring ability when they didn’t produce enough for his liking.

IN THE CREASE

Gibson and Miller didn’t post impressive statistics, but anybody who watched these Ducks knew their most valuable players were between the pipes. Gibson’s game has grown and matured even while his team has regressed, and the 39-year-old Miller still shows no drop-off in his abilities. If Miller decides to return for another NHL season, he’ll have the chance to pass Dominik Hasek on the NHL’s career victories list – and the Ducks won’t have to worry about this vital position for another year.

DROP THE BALLS

The Ducks have an 8.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL’s complicated draft lottery. Anaheim hasn’t had a top-five draft pick since 2005, when it snagged Bobby Ryan with the second overall choice. Murray and his scouting department have a long history of finding impressive talent outside the first round, but they’ll likely have the opportunity to choose a game-changing star this summer for the first time. The Ducks also have Boston’s first-round pick from their trade of Kase.

DARK BLUE LINE

Anaheim’s collection of defensemen appears to be thoroughly average, and none seems likely to get much better. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are solid pros, but they’re likely past the points in their development where they could become stars. The Ducks could use an injection of game-changing talent on the blue line.

GETTING BUCKETS

Linemates Henrique and Silfverberg bucked their team’s offensive struggles with a pair of impressive seasons, and they’ll be a foundation of the rebuilding effort. Henrique was particularly productive, leading the roster with 43 points. They’re both locked into long-term contracts.

GETZ BACK

The 35-year-old Getzlaf will head into the final season of his contract later this year when he begins his 16th season with Anaheim. The playmaker still racked up 29 assists this season despite finishing the year on a line with Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano, two 24-year-old recent additions with a combined 59 career NHL goals. It’s a long way down from his heyday with Corey Perry, but Getzlaf appears eager to keep working on the Ducks’ rebuilding project.

Supporters quickly raise $500K to try to save Alabama-Huntsville hockey program

UAH Hockey University of Alabama-Huntsville logo $500K
via UAH Chargers
Leave a comment

Mere days after it looked like the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey program was going to get cut, supporters raised a whopping $500K in hopes of keeping the UAH program alive.

With another $500K expected to come from boosters, the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s ice hockey program reached the seemingly unrealistic goal of $1M to try to avoid the end of a program that stretches back four decades.

UAH supporters drove that $500K by combining a Go Fund Me account with T-shirt sales.

Now, this doesn’t outright guarantee the continuation of UAH’s men’s program.

“[School president Darren Dawson] did make us a verbal commitment that if you get to that number, we’ll make it happen,” former UAH player Sheldon Wolitski told AL.com. “We’re hoping he’s going to honor his word. We were asking for a formal statement from him to say that. It would be a shame to put all this effort and we raise it and he doesn’t follow through.”

Even if school officials stick to that verbal commitment, there are some hurdles to clear.

Not the first time the UAH men’s ice hockey program has been saved

Paul Gattis (also of AL.com) argues that the UAH men’s ice hockey program needs more than just money to survive. This is not, after all, the first time that this program needed saving. It was teetering on being canceled back in 2011 before victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Even so, it’s pretty remarkable, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Does it justify comparing UAH officials to “Dr. Evil?” I’d zip it on that one.)

Those fighting for the UAH men’s ice hockey program aim to preserve something quite unusual, as Joseph Goodman noted as fundraising intensified:

UAH hockey is the only NCAA Division I hockey program in the South. How cool is that? It’s one of one — a singular, special thing just like the city it skates for and represents.

Will we see this program survive after giving Cam Talbot and others the chance to chase their dreams? It seems a lot more likely after an eventful week.

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.