Islanders’ success can’t be duplicated

New York Islanders
Getty

You have probably heard more than once over the years that the NHL is a copycat league. Or at least we like to think it is.

We latch on to the latest team that had success, pick out the traits about them that we like, and say, “well, that’s how you have to build your team now.”

If the Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup? Everybody has to build a fast, skilled team.

The Washington Capitals or St. Louis Blues win it all? Heavy hockey is back!

Now that the New York Islanders are on their way to the league’s semifinals for the second year in a row, having advanced beyond the First Round for the third year in a row, there are no doubt general managers and executives all across the league trying to study them in an effort to duplicate their success. This is probably especially true for teams that do not have a ton of star power and are looking for ways to overcome that.

If the Islanders can do it, why can’t we play that way?

[Related: Islanders advance, eliminate Bruins]

But this is not really a team, or a style, that can be duplicated. At least not easily. Mostly because no other team has Barry Trotz, his coaching staff, the goalies they have, or this particularly perfectly imperfect group of players around them.

With Wednesday’s 6-2 win over the Boston Bruins, the Islanders have now won five playoff series over the past three years and 25 total playoff games. That total is just one win behind Tampa Bay and Boston for the most playoff wins over the past three years. All of that for an organization that in the 24 seasons prior had won only 16 playoff games and only one playoff series.

It has been a night and day transformation since the hiring of Trotz.

They have found that postseason success despite not having consistently great regular season performances. Since the start of the 2018-19 season the Islanders are 10th in the league in overall regular season points percentage, and the past two seasons have finished 11th and 12th in the league standings. Overall, that is still very good. Legitimate playoff team. But it does not necessarily scream “Stanley Cup Playoff powerhouse.” Especially the way they backed into the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

They win with defense, having allowed the fewest goals in the NHL over the past three seasons. Again, a night-and-day transformation for a team that was 28th in goals against over the preceding three-year stretch, including last (30th out of 30) in the season immediately before this run began. The transformation has taken place with a roster that has a lot of the same players on it.

They also do not play like most dominant defensive teams. Yes, they can be suffocating at times. They can play with a lead.

But they also give up a lot of shots. And a lot of attempts. Sometimes they even give up a lot of chances. Most of the league’s dominant defensive teams in recent years did not do that. Whether it was the Joel Quenneville Blackhawks teams that were winning Stanley Cups, or the Patrice BergeronZdeno Chara Bruins, or the Darryl Sutter Kings, or even the recent Blues teams, they not only kept teams off the scoreboard, they did not let you generate any sort of consistent pressure or chances.

They also all had at least one superstar, Norris-level defender. With all due respect to the outstanding Adam PelechRyan Pulock pairing (and it is outstanding) the Islanders do not really have that, either.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 Second Round schedule, TV info]

The table below shows the top-10 teams in goals against over the past three seasons, and their league-wide ranks in shot attempts, shots against, scoring chances, and expected goals against (all situations via Natural Stat Trick) during that stretch.

They give up a lot of shots and chances for a team that gives up the fewest goals in the league.

The argument is that they keep things to the outside. And there is some truth to that, given the fact they are 23rd in shot attempts against but 10th in expected goals against. They have also blocked the second-most shots in the league during this stretch, making them only one of four teams in the top-15 in blocked shots to have made the playoffs in each of those three seasons (Colorado in 6th, Vegas in 11th, and Washington in 14th). Usually a lot of blocked shots means a lot of losing.

Even so, shots from the perimeter are still problematic. Goalies get screened. Rebounds get created. Shots get deflected. A lot of teams have found success like this over one year, and then cave in the next year.

The Islanders have not.

Goaltending is definitely a huge part of it, and if they have not had four goalies as good as they have the past three years maybe none of this works.

But another huge part of it is simply the fact Trotz knows what the heck he is doing, knows how to win in the playoffs, and knows how to get his team to buy into his style.

He has won at least one playoff series in each of his past nine playoff appearances. That level of consistency is almost unheard of in the NHL. Even great teams and coaches lose in the First Round regularly. Since the start of the 2011 postseason Trotz-coached teams have won 14 playoff series (most in the NHL for any coach during that stretch), been in the Final Four three times, and won a Stanley Cup.

He has done it with three different teams, built three different ways. His Nashville teams were built on defense. But it was superstar defensemen (Shea Weber, Ryan Suter). Washington was about superstar forwards and superstar talent.

In New York? He has one star forward (Mathew Barzal) and a group of very good, but not always great players that he has molded together into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Have they been lucky at times? Definitely. But literally no team goes far in the playoffs without some luck along the way. It is an essential element of winning.

You also do not consistently advance in the playoffs this far based only on luck.

You have to have something that works. The Islanders do. It is just probably not something that is going to work for anybody else.

They play a unique style, with a unique coach, to produce a unique result.

They are different. You can not duplicate them.

Scroll Down For:

    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

    Getty Images
    1 Comment

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

    The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

    The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

    Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

    Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

    tampa bay lightning
    Scott Audette/Getty Images
    2 Comments

    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

    The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

    “This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

    Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

    Rasmus Sandin
    Julian Avram/Getty Images
    2 Comments

    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

    marc-andre fleury
    David Berding/Getty Images
    2 Comments

    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.