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.
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 Bergeron–Zdeno 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 Pelech–Ryan Pulock pairing (and it is outstanding) the Islanders do not really have that, either.
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.