As the NHL season reaches the halfway point of the 2020-21 season we are taking a closer look each week at teams that are right on the line between being a Stanley Cup contender or a Stanley Cup pretender. Today we examine the New York Islanders.
Every year there is always a list of reasons to doubt the Islanders.
They do not score enough goals.
Their possession numbers are not great and they tend to give up a lot of shots.
They are not overly exciting and do not have a lot of star power or impact players beyond Mathew Barzal.
Yet every year you look up at the standings and see that they have won 10 games in a row, go 14-15 games without losing in regulation, get into the playoffs, and then knock off a team that appears more talented on paper with relative ease. Ever since the hiring of Barry Trotz the organization has gone from being the nail to being the hammer come playoff time. During the first two years of the Trotz era they’ve already won more playoff games (14) and playoff series (three) than they did in the two decades prior to that.
Two years ago they stunned everybody by winning more games without John Tavares than they did with him, going from being the worst defensive team in the league to being the best, and swept what looked to be a more talented Penguins team. A year ago they brushed aside concerns that the 2018-19 performance was a fluke and easily dispatched Washington and Philadelphia rosters that, again, looked superior on paper.
If you are a playoff hopeful one of the last things you should want to see is Barry Trotz standing behind the opposing bench, smiling politely as he waits to grind your team’s offense to dust.
Their strength is defense
As of Monday, the Islanders are allowing a league-low 2.22 goals per game. They were ninth best in that category a year ago and first two years ago. What makes that consistent performance so stunning is that when you look at the roster on paper, especially on defense, it does not really stand out. The defense does not have a Victor Hedman, or Alex Pietrangelo, or Cale Makar, and Miro Heiskanen, or that one player you think of as a Norris-caliber No. 1 defender.
But there also is not any real weakness. There is not really a pairing or player that another team can target every game and say “that is the player we are going to exploit.” Sometimes that is just as important as having the Norris contender. It only takes one weak link to bring the whole thing to a halt. Basically it is a team full of No. 2-5 defenders. Nobody that is a superstar, but also nobody that is out of place on a contending team.
Defense is also a team effort that goes beyond the blue line.
The Islanders have been blessed the past couple of years with outstanding goaltending, whether it was Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, or Greiss and Semyon Varlamov, or their current duo of Varlamov and future star Ilya Sorokin. That helps mask a lot of shortcomings.
They also have a solid group of responsible forwards that was strengthened at the trade deadline a year ago with the addition (and re-signing) of Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
At the halfway point of the seasons the Islanders rank in the top-five league wide in shots on goal against, expected goals goals against, scoring chances against, high-danger scoring chances against, and goals against per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play, while also being a top-10 penalty killing team. Perhaps even more important than that is the fact they are also one of the least penalized teams in the league, meaning they are rarely having to play shorthanded.
Those questions do still exist though
The biggest question is, again, going to revolve around whether or not they can score enough goals. That is going to be an even bigger question without Anders Lee, one of their top offensive players, whose season is now over.
Is there a trade to be made? Or can somebody else on the roster step up to fill that void, whether it be a young player waiting for a bigger opportunity (Kieffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom?) or a veteran player that needs a breakout (Anthony Beauvillier?).
There is also the fact they have feasted this season on the unbalanced divisional schedule and racked up a ton of wins early on against Buffalo, New Jersey, and the Rangers, the three rebuilding teams in the division. Against that trio the Islanders are 12-2-0 with a plus-21 goal differential. Against Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia they are 8-6-4 with a plus-2 goal differential.
(It is worth noting the latter group of numbers does include a 4-0 record against Boston. It is Pittsburgh, Washington, and Philadelphia that have given them issues, and the second half of their schedule sees them play a lot of games against Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia.)
There was also a fairly noticeable gap between them and Tampa in the Eastern Conference Final a year ago. Some of those games may have been close on the scoreboard, but it was clear which team was better. What would prevent that from happening again this season?
Contender Or Pretender
Maybe this is hedging a bit, but they are clearly better than a pretender and could easily beat the vast majority of the league’s teams in a best-of-seven series.
But there is reason to believe they are not quite on the same level as the top-three or-four contenders.
They are almost certainly going to make the playoffs.
There is a very real chance (maybe even a great chance!) they will go on another run and beat or one or two of whatever East Division teams they play.
But are they good enough to beat a Tampa Bay, or a Vegas, or a Colorado, or maybe even a Carolina in a best-of-seven series like they will almost certainly have to do to lift the Stanley Cup? That remains to be seen. Call them a contender, but maybe one that is a step below behind the top three or four best teams that should be considered the biggest Stanley Cup favorites.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)