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.
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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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.