Lamoriello, Trotz orchestrate Islanders’ big turnaround

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NEW YORK (AP) — Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz say they didn’t know exactly what to expect from the New York Islanders this season.

There were plenty of questions after the Islanders gave up 293 goals – the most in the NHL since 2006-07 – while missing the playoffs for the eighth time in 11 years. There was uncertainty on offense when star center John Tavares left in free agency for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

”There were a lot of unknowns. We had no preconceived notions,” Lamoriello said. ”Whatever expectations there were, there were really none one way or another.”

The answers have come in the form of a stunning one-year turnaround that has the Islanders in the second round of the playoffs. New York gave up a league-low 191 goals, charged to second place in the Metropolitan Division and just swept the star-laden Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

Knowing some had picked them to miss the playoff again, players just shrug it off.

”That’s kind of been a little bit of the story line here and we’re used to it,” said Anders Lee, who succeeded Tavares as team captain. ”That’s just the way it’s been, not just this year, it’s kind of always been that way. This year we’ve really taken it on and run with it.”

Both Lamoriello and Trotz say they knew they were going to give up fewer goals with a better defensive approach.

”We wanted to play a certain way,” Trotz said. ”We knew we could fix the goals against, that’s commitment and that’s work ethic, detail and structure.”

The 76-year-old Lamoriello, whose long career includes building the New Jersey Devils into an NHL power a generation ago, vowed to bring a culture change to the Islanders when he took over as the president of hockey operations last May. A few weeks later, he fired general manager Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight.

Trotz was hired as coach in June, days after he led Washington to its first Stanley Cup championship and then abruptly resigned in a contract dispute. The hiring was celebrated by the Islanders’ rabid fan base, which has seen just one postseason series win since 1993 – a far cry from the glory days of winning four championships in a row.

After losing Tavares, Lamoriello went about filling the roster with players with winning experience. Veterans like Leo Komarov, 32, and Valtteri Filppula, 35, were brought in to help the development of youngsters like Anthony Beauvilier. And 27-year-old Tom Kuhnhackl, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, was also a solid addition.

”We were looking for good people, the people who have won,” Trotz said. ”That’s so important for our growth as an organization and a group coming in. We looked for character people and Lou did a great job.”

The Islanders have embraced Trotz’s swarming, defense-first system.

”It’s helped us all along,” said forward Josh Bailey, now the longest-tenured Islander in his 11th season with the team. ”It’s a big part of our identity and I think the more results we’ve seen as the season went on, the more belief (it fostered) in one another and what we were doing, and trust in our staff and everyone.”

A big question in the offseason centered on goaltending after Robin Lehner was signed to pair with Thomas Greiss. Lehner was with Buffalo the previous season and left a game down the stretch because of a panic attack and was subsequently treated for alcohol and drug addiction and also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD. He talked openly about his personal life when he joined the Islanders, and credited the organization and his new teammates with giving him support.

Greiss and Lehner were solid all season. Greiss went 23-14-2 with a 2.28 goals-against average and five shutouts while Lehner was 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA and six shutouts. The two shared the William Jennings Trophy for the team allowing the fewest goals in the league. Lehner started all four games in the series against the Penguins, limiting them to six goals on 136 shots, and is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

The focus on defense has meant playing with more discipline. And while a few players enjoyed boosts in their offensive production, it meant reductions for others, including Mathew Barzal, Lee, Bailey and Jordan Eberle. The sacrifices have resulted in more overall success.

”We play as a team,” Trotz said. ”I think everybody has given up a part of themselves to be a part of something greater.”

The coach points to a road trip in December that became a springboard for the rest of the season. They had lost five of the previous nine after the Thanksgiving weekend, and then won three of four, shutting down high-scoring lines for Colorado and Dallas.

”I think from that point we really trusted our game,” Trotz said. ”We were sort of in-between a little bit and that sort of galvanized the group.”

In the second game after Christmas, the Islanders went to Toronto and shut out the Maple Leafs 5-0 in their first game playing against Tavares. It was part of a stretch in which the Islanders went 16-2-3 from Dec. 8 to Feb. 2 to jump to the top of the division.

”I came into this team and talked to the guys straight in the summer and a lot of the guys said ‘We’re going to go far,”’ Lehner said. ”That just grew during the season when the system started to jell and we started playing together.”

They Islanders say they’re not simply satisfied with just getting to the second round, where they will face either Carolina or Trotz’s former team, the Capitals.

”We’re nowhere near where we want to be at,” Bailey said. ”You have to win four (series) to win it all.”

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

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

Pastrnak the Unpredictable: Bruins winger is dominating NHL

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David Pastrnak on the ice these days is like a dazzling young magician who isn’t quite sure how his sleight of hand is going to work out.

When he has the puck, his Boston Bruins teammates don’t know what to expect. Opponents don’t know. He doesn’t even know.

”If you don’t know what you’ll do, then they’re not going to know what to do,” Pastrnak said.

Unpredictability is at the core of Pastrnak’s brilliance. His blend of creativity and skill is the reason the player nicknamed ”Pasta” leads the NHL with 26 goals.

The 23-year-old winger from the Czech Republic has been better than a point-a-game player before and helped Boston reach the Stanley Cup Final last year, but this season has put him in the discussion as one of the best goal-scorers in the world.

”He’s played great hockey this year,” said Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals star who has led the league in goals eight times and may now be passing the torch to Pastrnak. ”He’s a great shooter, a great skater and he’s on the next level this year.”

Pastrnak is on pace to shatter his career high in goals and points. He credits that to chemistry with linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand and more of a ”shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that has perhaps taken opposing defenses and goaltenders by surprise.

”I’ve been playing with these two guys so long that I know where they’re at and I know where to find them and they know where to go,” Pastrnak said. ”I’ve been shooting the puck a little more. I think when there is a shot, I take it. It used to be times when I would still look for pass. Now, I think I discover better that if I’m in a good spot, then I should shoot.”

Pastrnak is averaging almost four shots a game, but aside from the faceoff circle on the power play where he can one-time the puck, few know when he’s going to put the puck on net. He has even tried a drop pass on a breakaway this season.

Good luck to anyone trying to anticipate his next move.

”Even his own teammates don’t know what to expect from him,” said Washington defenseman Radko Gudas, who has played with Pastrnak on the Czech national team. ”I think that’s the hardest part is the reading of him, but for a defenseman, you’re staying on the defensive side, there’s only so much you can do. I guess you try to not get dangled by him.”

Teammates only have to worry about that in practice. In games, they benefit from Pastrnak’s magic acts.

Much like skating with a distributing center like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, it’s not easy playing with someone who is abruptly creative, but his linemates are finally getting the trick.

”I just try to stay predictable for him,” Marchand said. ”I tend to go to the same spots or put the puck in the same areas. So when he’s being unpredictable he at least knows what I’m going to do and then I kind of just let him do his thing and try to find space where he isn’t.”

Marchand added: ”He could do 100 different things in a game, so it’s tough to defend that.”

How about coaching it? Bruce Cassidy isn’t worried about Boston’s top goal-scorer going off script – he expects it – and figures Bergeron and Marchand would put Pastrnak back in line, if needed.

The Bruins coach understands his top line’s dynamic allows for Pastrnak and Marchand to be more offensively driven because Bergeron does so much all over the ice.

”With the puck, he’s earned the right to play his game,” Cassidy said of Pastrnak. ”The things we work with David on is playing through frustration, if teams are starting to play you harder. We’ve talked to him about how he can still help the team. We talk about his play away from the puck because he’s on the ice 18, 20 minutes a night, so that’s important.”

Opponents can sense confidence oozing from Pastrnak and see that as the reason for his breakout season. Pastrnak himself is soft-spoken and just trying to enjoy himself and score some goals.

”That’s what it’s about, to have fun, and I think that’s when you play your best hockey,” he said. ”I’m just trying to make plays that I see.”

More often than not, they’re plays no one else can see.

Oilers headed toward another collapse without major change

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Take a quick glance at the NHL standings and it is easy to conclude that the Edmonton Oilers have put themselves in a pretty good position.

They are just two points out of first place in the Pacific Division, and after a disastrous meltdown in 2018-19 it would seem first-year coach Dave Tippett and new general manager Ken Holland have made some significant strides this year.  But the current standings are only a history of what has already happened. They tell us nothing about what will happen — or is likely to happen — in the future.

When you dig a little deeper than just the win-loss record it becomes really hard to be optimistic about the direction this season could take. And before you argue that the record is all that matters and the team is playing better, keep in mind they are only one point better after 34 games than they were a year ago (40 points this year vs. 39 points a year ago).

All of the same flaws that have plagued the Oilers still exist today, and without some sort of a major change they could be headed toward the same fate as last year’s team.

It’s Still McDavid and Draisaitl or bust offensively

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are two of the best offensive players in the league, and when they are on the ice together they are the best duo the league has seen in decades. But the second the Oilers take them off the ice the team’s lack of depth is exposed and they are unable to compete. It’s been a problem for two years and is somehow even worse this season.

Just consider…

  • When one of McDavid or Draisaitl is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have a plus-5 goal differential. Not great, but at least on the positive side. At this time a year ago it was plus-11.
  • When both of them are on the ice their goal differential is a plus-6. At this time a year ago it was plus-10.
  • When neither is on the ice their goal differential is minus-17. At this time a year ago it was only minus-7.
  • When neither player is on the ice the Oilers are averaging just 1.46 goals per 60 minutes. That is a drop from the same point a year ago when they were averaging 1.65 goals. Last year’s number was awful. This year’s is worse.

They attempted to address the scoring depth issue by adding James Neal from Calgary. While he has been better than Milan Lucic offensively, he has cooled off considerably after a white-hot start that seemed to be the beginning of a bounce-back year.

He has just six goals in his past 26 games, while almost all of his production this year has been power play dependent (when he is with McDavid and/or Draisaitl). During 5-on-5 play his overall play has become a hot mess. Once you get beyond McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins there is not another forward on the roster that is capable of driving a line on their own.

They still can not stop anybody

When it comes to goals against the Oilers have shown marginal improvement this season. Probably not enough to matter (still 18th in goals against per game), and it’s not the type of improvement they should be relying on to continue because it is entirely dependent on goaltending.

Almost all of that improvement is the result of Mikko Koskinen playing better than expected over the first month of the season in net and masking the team’s many defensive flaws.

When it comes to shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and their ability to control the puck the Oilers remain one of the league’s worst teams. They are still lacking impact players on the blue line, and if their goaltending is not flawless (and it often isn’t) they do not have much of a chance to win.

Mike Smith is in the middle of his second straight sub-par season, while Koskinen has already started to show some signs of regression over his past few starts. If the goaltending doesn’t hold up things could quickly derail.

It’s all starting to catch up them already

The lack of forward depth. The lack of a true No. 1 (or even No. 2) NHL defenseman. The mediocre goaltending.

All of it.

Since starting the season by winning seven of their first eight games, the Oilers have gone 11-11-4 in the 26 games that have followed, including a 2-5-1 mark in their most recent seven-game stretch. While they remain in second place in the Pacific, they are still only four points ahead of the first non-playoff team (a Vancouver team that has two games in hand). On top of that, their upcoming schedule doesn’t get any easier as the next seven games are against Toronto, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. If they can not successfully navigate through that stretch it is going to leave them in a tough spot where they might be in danger of wasting another fast start to the season.

What that change might be is hard to determine. It’s still a matter of talent and not having enough of it. There is only so much a coach can do with no forward depth and no top defenders. And there is only so much a GM can do to make changes when there are so few assets to trade.

In the end, it all goes back to the mess the previous front office left behind and is a reminder as to how much work Ken Holland still has to do in fixing it.

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.

OHL goalie undergoes surgery after suffering nasty injury

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On Thursday night, the OHL game between the Niagara IceDogs and London Knights was cancelled after IceDogs goalie Tucker Tynan suffered a nasty injury to his leg.

The incident occurred in the opening minute of the second period when Tynan and a Knights player collided resulting in the 17-year-old suffering a nasty gash on his leg. Trainers and paramedics were on the ice for a while before they were able to take Tynan off the ice on a stretcher.

The young netminder was eventually taken to hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. Thankfully, the IceDogs were able to announce that Tynan’s surgery was a success and that he was in stable condition.

“You never expect an injury like that to occur so your first reaction is just to hope and pray for the player that has been hurt,” said Knights Associate General Manager Rob Simpson, per Global News.

“Right now we are all praying for Tucker and hoping he can have a speedy recovery.”

Similar injuries have occurred in hockey before. Former Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk suffered a horrific gash to his throat in March of 1989. Also, Donald Audette’s wrist was cut by a skate in December of 2001, and Richard Zednik took a skate to the throat from a teammate while with the Florida Panthers. These injuries are all just so frightening and unfortunate.

There’s still no word on how long Tynan will need to stay in hospital or how long his recovery will be, but it’s just encouraging to hear that he’s doing better.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 30 free agents; Pacioretty’s career year

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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.

• Former NHLer Mike Brown explains how he was able to make it to the highest level. (Puck Junk)

• The Hockey News breaks down the top 30 free agents to be. (The Hockey News)

Justin Holl and Travis Dermott have really helped the Maple Leafs blue line. (TSN)

• It’s been a tough year for Wild defenseman Matt Dumba. (Hockey Wilderness)

• It might be time for the Preds to turn to Juuse Saros a little more often. (Predlines)

• What are the fancy stats saying about the Los Angeles Kings? (Jewels from the Crown)

Max Pacioretty is on pace to have a career year. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Coyotes have loaned Barrett Hayton to Team Canada for the World Juniors. (Five for Howling)

• The Blues are about to have a lot of tough decisions to make on their roster. (Bleedin’ Blue)

• It’s time for the Lightning to give Cal Foote a chance to make their roster. (Raw Charge)

• Is it time for the Devils to start worrying about Jesper Bratt? (All About the Jersey)

• Cayden Primeau is showing that he’s already NHL ready. (Habs Eyes on Prize)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.