How the Islanders proved everyone wrong

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No sport seems to lend itself to unexpected results quite like the NHL.

The New York Islanders returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and opening up their Round 1 series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on home ice, has to qualify as perhaps the unexpected result in the NHL this season.

Go back to the start of the season, look at the situation they were in, look at their roster, and it would have been almost impossible to have lower expectations for this team as almost nobody had them projected as a playoff team.

The 2017-18 version of the team was one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era, and it lost one of its steadiest defensive players in Calvin de Haan.

Even worse, they lost John Tavares, their franchise player, in free agency to the Toronto Maple Leafs and were entering this season with three of their top-five returning forwards, including new captain Anders Lee, all in contract years. All can still unrestricted free agents on July 1. Given the makeup of the roster, the preseason expectations, and the contract situation for so many of their top players it seemed almost inevitable that they would be sellers at the deadline and an afterthought come playoff time.

Not going to lie, I thought this team was going to be a disaster at the start (especially given their offseason — which I hated!), and even as they kept winning games early in the year kept waiting for the inevitable regression in the second half. Even though they did slow down a little bit, they never fell off the cliff and continued to fight for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. In short, I was very wrong about this.

As was pretty much everybody else, I am guessing, outside of their own building.

Welcome to life in the NHL, where nobody really knows anything, and the sport itself can make you question everything you think you know. At least in the short-term.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

How did the Islanders do it?

Well, let’s start with new coach Barry Trotz, who is getting most of the credit for the turnaround.

This was the Islanders’ biggest offseason acquisition, if for no other reason than they were hiring away the reigning Stanley Cup winning coach. That is always a big deal and a notable move, and the results were immediate. The Islanders’ turnaround has only strengthened Trotz’s reputation as a defensive coach, and the numbers show just how much of an impact he has made.

Remember, this is largely the same defense that played for the Islanders a year ago when they were, unquestionably, the worst defensive team in the league and one of the worst defensive teams in the past 25 years.

There is a lot of significant improvement in pretty much every category, going from the bottom-three (and in some cases last) to the middle the pack in some, and the top-10 in others.

Obviously there was nowhere else to go but up for this team, but that is still a significant move in the right direction, especially considering the personnel.

But I still think the perception of this team as being a total shutdown team defensively is a little off. You look at the goals against numbers and immediately want to think “best defensive team in the league,” because that is just what you always think about the team that gave up the fewest goals in the league. But when you look at the other areas that are actually a representation of their defensive play, specifically their ability to limit shots and scoring chances, they are simply … good.

They are certainly not bad, they are definitely better than they were, but I am not quite sure they reach the level of *great* defensively.

They are average (shot attempts against, high-danger scoring chances against) to above average (expected goals against).

This where the goaltending factor comes in, because goaltending can change everything for an NHL team. It is also one of the biggest reasons the sport can be so unpredictable and volatile with its results.

Islanders fans didn’t like a few weeks ago when I gave the goalies more credit for the team’s success than Trotz, but that was not an attempt to take credit away from Trotz. It was just trying to look at things objectively.

When you do, it is hard to not give a ton of credit to the play of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss for just how far the team has climbed.

For the season, they finished with the best combined save percentage in the NHL, and when the Islanders did have a defensive breakdown in front of them, they consistently bailed them out at a rate better than almost any other goalie for any other team in the league.

Some more numbers, and again, a comparison versus their performance from a season ago.

Not only was the defense awful a season ago, but so were the goalies. Put those two things together and you have a recipe for madness.

For as much as the team improved defensively, the goalies saw their performance improve even more, especially as it relates to their 5-on-5 save percentage and their save percentage against high-danger scoring chances.

Those are massive, massive, massive jumps. Game-changing jumps. Season-changing jumps.

Yes, seeing fewer chances helps, but even when they did see chances they played significantly better and stopped more of them than they did a season ago. That is still where a lot of the improvement comes in and the biggest reason the Islanders went from absolute worst goal prevention team to the absolute best goal prevention team, and not merely a “good” goal prevention team.

That is also okay.

Sometimes that is how you have to win. The goalies are part of the team and get paid a lot of money, too. They are allowed to impact a team’s fortunes (and often times do).

The thing of it is, we probably should have seen this coming, and if there is an area where we (or at least me) got it wrong with this team prior to the season, it was with the goalies. We should have known they would at least have a chance to be pretty good.

Greiss’ performances stands out, but it is not the first time he has played at this level.

He has appeared in at least 20 games five times in his career and has finished those seasons with the following save percentages: .927 (this season), .925, .920, .913, .908, and .892 (a year ago). He has consistently been an above average goalie outside of this past season, which was the obvious outlier in his career.

While Lehner was coming off of a disastrous season in Buffalo, he, too, had shown the ability to play at a fairly high level in the NHL and behind some pretty shoddy defensive teams. His save percentages in seasons with at least 20 games played: .930 (this season), .924, .920, .913, .908 (a year ago in Buffalo), and .905.

Again, pretty consistently league average or better.

You are not wrong if you are skeptical about the long-term outlook of the Islanders beyond this season, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle and their contracts. Will they be back? And if not, who are the Islanders replacing them with?

Plus, every year there is a team that greatly outperforms its underlying numbers and thinks they stumbled upon the secret on how to do it. Then they eventually badly regress the next season when the goalies regress. It happens like clockwork.

Maybe that happens with the Islanders.

Or maybe Trotz keeps improving the defense enough to make up for whatever slight regression might happen in net, or maybe they find improvements in other areas. A lot can happen in a few months. But right now none of that matters this season for this team in these playoffs because this team has made it work. They improved enough defensively with the help of their new coaching staff to be competitive. Their goalies improved enough on top of that to make them a contender, proving pretty much everyone in the league wrong, and a team that is going to be an extremely difficult team to knock out in the playoffs.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Penguins vs. Islanders Round 1 preview

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.

 

Where Avs are at after re-signing J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

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He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

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

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


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

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports