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.

 

Blue Jackets’ Foligno suspended 3 games for elbowing Bellemare

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Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno was ejected from Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche for a nasty elbow to the head of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

That play will result in him missing a few more games.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Monday afternoon that Foligno has been suspended three games for elbowing.

Bellemare was diagnosed with a concussion is going to remain out of the Avalanche for the time being.

Here is a look at the play, as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

The league notes that this hit can not be classified as excusable or accidental contact where Foligno raises his arm as a reflex to brace for sudden contact or to attempt to avoid a collision. Instead, it is Foligno that is in control of the play and initiates the contact, meaning the onus is on him to deliver a clean body check. He obviously did not do that and instead extended his elbow forcefully into Bellemare’s jaw.

Foligno said after the game he did not know he hit Bellemare in the head and was sick to his stomach when he realized he did.

Prior to this suspension Foligno had only been fined one time in his NHL career and never suspended, but the fact that Bellemare was injured on the play almost certainly added some games to Foligno’s punishment.

In 17 games this season he has one goal and six assists for the Blue Jackets.

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.

 

Sportsnet fires Don Cherry following Coach’s Corner comments

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Rogers Sportsnet has fired Don Cherry following his comments during Saturday’s Coach’s Corner segment on Hockey Night in Canada.

“Sports brings people together – it unites us, not divides us,” read the statement released by Rogers Sportsnet on Monday. “Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday Night’s broadcast, it has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down. During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for. Don is synonymous with hockey and has played an integral role in growing the game over the past 40 years. We would like to thank Don for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada.”

During a rant about seeing people in the Greater Toronto Area not wearing poppies to honor fallen soldiers, the 85-year commentator singled out immigrants ahead of Remembrance Day on Monday.

“I live in Mississauga, nobody … very few people … wear a poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it, nobody wears a poppy. Now you go to the small cities … And the rows on rows … you people who come here, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

The negative response to Cherry’s comments caused Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley to issue a statement on Sunday saying that the comments do no reflect what the network represents. Cherry’s Coach’s Corner co-host, Ron MacLean, apologized on Twitter and during Sunday’s “Hometown Hockey” broadcast.

“Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat out wrong … I owe you an apology, too. I sat there, did not catch it, did not respond. Last night was a really great lesson to Don and me. We were wrong, and I sincerely apologize. I wanted to thank you for calling me and Don on that last night.”

The NHL responded with a statement of its own:

Cherry, who coached the Boston Bruins for five seasons before becoming a full-time hockey commentator with the CBC in 1981, refused to apologize, telling the Toronto Sun, “I have had my say.” Following the news of his firing, he told the paper, “I know what I said and I meant it. Everybody in Canada should wear a poppy to honour our fallen soldiers.”

No word yet on how Sportsnet plans to use the first intermission of the early Saturday Hockey Night in Canada game yet.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Power Rankings: The quiet dominance of the Capitals

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Maybe it is because we are so used to seeing them at the top of the NHL standings.

Maybe it is because they already won their Stanley Cup and there is no longer any pressure on them to shake their postseason disappointment label.

Or maybe it is because there are so many other intriguing stories around the NHL that are dominating headlines (Edmonton and Vancouver off to surprising starts, the Islanders winning 10 in a row, Boston and St. Louis looking like they can get back to the Stanley Cup Final).

Whatever the reason, it seems like the Washington Capitals are getting a little overlooked this season and it is kind of amazing given just how dominant they have been. Entering the week they are 13-2-3 for the season, are one of the highest scoring teams in the league, have the best points percentage in the league, and have recorded at least a point in 11 consecutive games (10-0-1). What stands out the most about this start is they are doing it while getting mostly sub-par goaltending from Braden Holtby. If he gets back on track there is the potential for another championship parade in Washington D.C..

Because of all of that the Capitals climb to the top spot in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

Where does every other team sit this season?

To the rankings!

1. Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin at 34 years of age is off to the second best goal scoring start of his career. He just keeps going and completely disregarding the normal aging curve of players.

2. St. Louis Blues. The defending champs were 3-2-3 after eight games and lost their best player for what will probably most — if not all — of the regular season. All they have done is go 9-1-0 in their past 10 games. Lot of overtime luck in there, but they are building themselves a nice cushion.

3. New York Islanders. After starting the year 1-3-0 they are entering the week on an 11-0-1 run, with the only loss coming in overtime after surrendering a three-goal third period lead.

4. Boston Bruins. Eventually somebody other than David Pastrnak or Brad Marchand will have to start scoring some goals. They have time to figure it out.

5. Philadelphia Flyers. Very quietly the Flyers have one of the top points percentages in the NHL (sixth best) and have won five out of their past six. Five of those six games have gone to overtime or a shootout so they are not really decisive wins, but their underlying and possession numbers paint the picture of a team that might have the right process.

6. Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid and Leon Drasaitl are doing exactly what is expected and exactly what they always do. The big difference-makers this season, though, are Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen playing great in net. Those two are the players that will determine what this team is able to do.

7. Colorado Avalanche. They slumped recently but am going to give them the benefit of the doubt due to the injury situation. When healthy they showed they can dominate, and they showed against Nashville and Columbus they can still score goals even without Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins. Just when it looked like they were starting to get fully healthy Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist all exited the lineup with injuries. They are still playing extremely well despite all of the players they have been missing but the absence of Crosby will be a huge test.

9. Montreal Canadiens. Shea Weber can still be a great player and change a game when he is healthy.

10. Florida Panthers. If Sergei Bobrovsky would start playing like the goalie they paid him to be they would really be on to something this year. There is still plenty of time for him to turn it around and if/when he does this could be a sneaky dangerous team.

11. Nashville Predators. Filip Forsberg has five points in five games since returning to the lineup. The offense has been great, but they need more from the goalies, specifically Jusse Saros.

12. Dallas Stars. Ben Bishop got back on track and so did the Stars. They still need to do something to find some more offense because no goalie is great enough to allow one goal every game.

13. Winnipeg Jets. Paul Maurice deserves a lot of credit for keeping this team competitive given the state of the defense. But do you know who deserves more credit? Goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning. They are starting to show some signs of getting back on track, but something still seems a little off here.

15. Toronto Maple Leafs. Everybody wants the Maple Leafs to change the way the play, but what if the change they need to make is to become more aggressive offensively, and not less?

16. Calgary Flames. They are starting to get back on track after a slow start. Matthew Tkachuk is the engine driving this machine right now.

17. Arizona Coyotes. They are definitely on the right track but still need to learn how to finish games.

18. Vancouver Canucks. The offense has gone cold during their four-game losing streak, but there are still a lot of encouraging signs here with this team.

19. Vegas Golden Knights. They have lost five out of six and still have not found a competent backup goalie to give Marc-Andre Fleury some rest. That is an under the radar problem that is going to need to be addressed.

20. Carolina Hurricanes. I still believe when all is said and done this season they will be a contender in the Eastern Conference, but they look out of sorts right now across the board.

21. Buffalo Sabres. The competition has started to get tougher and the losses have become more frequent. Not a good sign. After starting the year 8-1-0 the Sabres are 1-5-1 since with the only win coming against a lousy Detroit Red Wings team.

22. New York Rangers. Adam Fox has been the most impressive rookie on this team. That is not a knock on No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko, just a statement on how good Fox has been.

23. San Jose Sharks. Starting to show some signs of life, but how far are they really going to go with that goaltending?

24. Chicago Blackhawks. They are finding ways to collect points every other game, but there is not really anything impressive about their play.

25. Ottawa Senators. They may not have a ton of talent but they play hard and are not throwing in the towel on this season.

26. Anaheim Ducks. If John Gibson and Ryan Miller are not flawless this team has no chance. Both goalies are having outstanding years and the team is still trending toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

27. New Jersey Devils. Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, is starting to look more comfortable.

28. Minnesota Wild. Their big rally against Arizona was a nice break from the overall disappointment that has been the 2019-20 season.

29. Columbus Blue Jackets. My sleeper team for the season is turning out to be exactly what everyone thought it would be.

30. Detroit Red Wings. After losing 12 out of 13 they managed to beat Boston and Vegas in back-to-back games. Even with those two wins they are still just 3-11-1 in their past 15 games. That is bad. What is not bad? Robby Fabbri scoring two goals in his first game with the team.

31. Los Angeles Kings. Time to start selling off whatever they can.

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.

Coyotes sign GM Chayka to long-term extension

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes have signed general manager John Chayka to a long-term contract extension.

Terms of the deal announced Monday were not disclosed.

Chayka has built the Coyotes into playoff contenders since becoming the youngest general manager in North American major sports history at 26 in 2017.

Arizona came up four points short of the postseason in 2018-19 and is off to a 9-6-2 start this year.

Chayka has overhauled the Coyotes’ roster, adding players like Phil Kessel, Nick Schmaltz, Antti Raanta and Michael Grabner through trades and free agency.

Arizona also drafted Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun and Barrett Hayton under Chayka.