How Islanders have jumped to top of Metropolitan Division

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After they lost John Tavares in free agency, the New York Islanders kind of became an afterthought ahead of the 2018-19 season. No one expected them to be competitive this season. No one. The season is still young, but the fact that they’re in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division is remarkable, but how have they been able to pull this off?

First, the impact their goaltenders have had on the team can’t be ignored. Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have exceeded expectations in every way. The goalies are a big reason why the Islanders have been able to rattle off five wins in a row over division rivals like the Penguins (twice), the Flyers, the ‘Canes and Devils. Greiss has accumulated three of the five victories, while Lehner has been between the pipes for two of them. Neither one of them has allowed more than two goals in any of the last five games. That’s terrific.

Can both guys keep this up? Can the Islanders keep this going? Last week, PHT’s Adam Gretz broke down whether or not you should buy the Islanders’ fast start.

The other reason they’ve had so much success is because of the amount of balanced scoring they’ve received. Over the last five contests, Brock Nelson (four goals) Anders Lee (three), Jordan Eberle (three), Josh Bailey, Ryan Pulock, Andrew Ladd, Anthony Beauvillier, Tom Kuhnhackl, Leo Komarov, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech and Matt Martin all found the back of the net. That’s 12 different scorers over five games. That’s really impressive.

“I have the same mindset as the team right now,” Bailey said, per NHL.com. “I just turn the page after each game and get ready for the next one. When you get on these streaks as a team, and individually, you want to ride them for as long as you can but it’s about staying [on an] even keel, not thinking too much about it and preparing the same way you do every game.”

They’ve done all of this with a struggling Mathew Barzal. Not only has Barzal not picked up a goal in 11 consecutive games, he’s also been held point-less in three of the five games during this current winning streak.

Whether or not this group of players is good enough to keep this up remains to be seen. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to their upcoming schedule, as they’ll play tough games against the Canadiens and Lightning this week, before closing out their quick two-game Florida trip with a game against the Panthers on Saturday night.

“When you get the results you’re looking for it adds to that confidence, and I think our staff does a great job preparing us,” added Bailey. “I think there’s a belief within our group that we can win every night, and we take the same approach every game. We’ll turn the page after this one and get ready for the next one.”

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.

Simplicity, consistency key for one of the NHL’s most unheralded lines

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WINNIPEG — Paul Maurice says he saw it long before the underlying metrics pointed out that he owned one of the NHL’s top lines.

And we’re not talking Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

When you think of elite lines in the NHL, there are several that come quickly to mind.

Lines with Rantanen and MacKinnon, Matthews and Nylander, Stamkos and Kucherov, Couturier and Giroux and many others spring to mind.

What you wouldn’t expect to see is a line known more for, at least through an observer’s eye, a grinding style that’s tasked with shutting down opposing team’s top lines, being called one of the top 10 lines in the NHL based on advanced metrics.

So it was surprising to see Adam Lowry’s line with Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev in a story done over the summer by the folks at Broad Street Hockey.

Devoid of household names around the NHL, the line affectionately known as the ‘TLC’ line in Winnipeg, has nevertheless exhibited elite attributes as a trio.

Maurice knew who I was talking about long before I finished my preamble about the line in question.

“I know there was a stretch of time where — and I don’t have the exact dates — they ran top four in the NHL for chances-for based on a certain definition of chances-for, which is a really high number,” Maurice said. “What’s unique about that line is offensive zone time and chances for, and that’s why I think they’re so effective.”

Maurice pointed out that his ‘shutdown’ line is spending most of the time in the other team’s offensive zone. Given the competition they’re thrown over the boards to play against, it’s remarkable.

“Exactly,” Maurice said.

* * *

Broad Street’s story used several metrics to come up with their list of lines, added some parameters on how long the line had to have played together to get a sample size worthy of being compared, and then let the numbers tell the story.

That story showed that the Lowry line accounted for a 66.67 percent goals-for percentage, meaning the Jets accounted for more goals with the line on the ice than it did against with the same unit on the ice. The bare minimum aim here is 50 percent. As you can see, the TLC line was much higher.

In terms of possession numbers, there was no better line in the NHL than Winnipeg’s trio with 60.56 percent. That is to say that, simply, the line outshot their opponents.

Using the numbers Broad Street compiled, no other line topped 60 percent. They also were best-in-show when it came to expected goals-for at 62.28 percent, meaning the Jets were more likely than not outscore their opponents with the TLC line on the ice.

Winnipeg’s unequivocal top line of Scheifele, Connor and Wheeler? They didn’t crack the Top 10.

It’s nothing magical, according to Lowry.

Lowry is the guy in the dressing room you go when you want a scouting report on the team in town for a game or just insight on any player in the league. He knows other teams lines and their tendencies. He’s prepared.

As complex as some of the numbers might be, Lowry simplifies what his line does right and why perhaps the underlying numbers are what they are for his line.

“You look at Schiefele’s line, for example, they’re not getting the third and fourth chances off the rebound because they’re goalscorers, they’re in the other team’s zone and they’re one and done, you know?” Lowry said. “They could have a lower Corsi, let’s say they’ve given up seven shots and only had three for but have scored on two of them.

Lowry says the predictable play of his line feeds into how effective his line is. Interdependency between the three is high.

“We might not necessarily have that high-end skill, but it makes our game so much simpler to read,” Lowry said. “I know there are about three options when Copp has the puck about the way it’s going to go. I know with Andrew and Brandon, we don’t have to be the fastest but we’re going to play faster because we know, generally, what we’re going to do. It makes us going to the right spots easier because they’re really smart players.”

Copp likes to call it consistent, but he says it means the same thing as Lowry saying predictable.

“It’s more chemistry than anything else,” Copp said, admitting there’s no way to really account for what that means. “I think it comes from consistent play. You look at Schiefele and Wheeler and Kyle Connor. There’s consistency. Our line, we’re consistent in our routes, in our play and our work ethic. We’re not trying to stray or do anything secretive.”

Copp says if they’re the resulting high numbers comes down to how it happens.

“It’s constant pressure in their zone,” he said. “It’s how good we can be defensive that leads to that, too. We’re not Nikita Kucherov creating chances, but we defend so hard and so well that it leads to a lot of opportunities.”

A simpler game?

“I’d say more direct than simple,” Copp said.

Tanev agrees. Given the lines consistency on the ice, it’s not surprising it spills into the dressing room and in front of the media.

“We know where one another is going to be, and that makes it so much easier in the offensive zone,” Tanev said. “We trust one another. It makes us hard to play against.”

Lowry says analytics have their worth. In the same breath, however, when he jumps over the boards, he’s not thinking about trying to even up a lopsided Corsi rating.

“You just can’t think like that, it will throw you off your game,” he said. “We’re going to have good numbers based on good play.

“It’s important, though. If you’re a bad Corsi player or whatever, you’re giving up a lot of high-danger chances, there are probably areas to improve on.”

* * *

Maurice says his team is not a Corsi team.

He says there’s a threshold when it comes to how much he wants his team to be shooting the puck, but as an example, he says he doesn’t want Patrik Laine shooting a puck he doesn’t want to shoot.

“I do like the idea of controlling the puck,” Maurice said, adding that philosophies among coaches across the league differ. “Some shoot everything and I mean shoot everything. I believed in that for a long time, but then the players here changed.”

Maurice then asked his own question.

“What’s the value of even?” he said, adding that he knows someone is going to mock him for it.

“If Adam Lowry goes out and he’s even and Mark Scheifele goes out and he’s even, is it the same value?” Maurice said, nevertheless. “For me, the answer is no.

“If Adam goes out an he’s even and he’s playing against the other team’s best, he’s not done less than you would have hoped offensively, but he’s done more defensively.

“Now, if Scheifele goes out and he’s even, he’s probably done what you thought he would do defensively but far less offensively. There has to be a different value.”

Maurice said when he got to Winnipeg, the analytics crew they used looked at how their players compared to the top two offensive players in the league.

“Our numbers were terrible, which tells you don’t have a consistent line to play or a group to play against their best,” Maurice said.

The remedy that started the turn around for the Jets was putting Andrew Ladd with Bryan Little and Michael Frolik, and putting Scheifele with Wheeler.

“We had a pretty good run,” Maurice said as a result.

The Jets made the playoffs in 2014-15, Maurice’s first full year behind the bench, for the first time since the team moved to Winnipeg in 2011.

The progress from there has turned Winnipeg into a team that won 52 games last year and reached the Western Conference Final.

More importantly, it’s helped to the Jets grow into a Stanley Cup contender.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Three questions facing New York Islanders

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

1. Build more for the future, or for now?

When you lose a player of John Tavares‘ caliber for nothing but cap space and a roster spot, people are going to pencil you in for a drop-off. After all, Mathew Barzal is one of the players the Isles will point to as a reason for optimism, yet the Islanders still missed the playoffs with Barzal and Tavares on their roster.

The smart thing would be to accept the reality of their situation – particularly after a promising draft including nice picks Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson – and maybe roll the dice for one more blue-chip prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft. Right? Maybe?

Well, the Islanders are sending some mixed signals.

Some of it stems from simple human nature. Lou Lamoriello is 75. Barry Trotz just won a Stanley Cup, was already part of a lengthy rebuild with Nashville, is 56 himself, and about to enter his 20th NHL season. These are front office members who probably don’t have the highest level of tolerance for growing pains.

The Islanders roster boasts some unsettling contracts, some of which were added by Lamoriello.

Leo Komarov is 31 and received a highly questionable four-year contract. Andrew Ladd, 32, somehow has five years left on his ugly deal. Cal Clutterbuck is 30, Johnny Boychuk is 34, and even slightly younger guys (Thomas Hickey at 29, Josh Bailey at 28) carry some risks. The Islanders have more than $19M going to six defensemen who were abysmal as a unit last season, and four of those contracts have at least four more years remaining.

Trotz’s schemes could conceivably help the Islanders at least wade into the East playoff bubble, as a better defense can beget better goaltending. Combine that with more magic from Mathew Barzal and a few other key forwards, and maybe you have a respectable season.

Is that really the best way to handle this situation, though? The Islanders may instead be better off selling off some of their riskier contracts, handing opportunities to young players instead of fading veterans, and generally living to fight another day. Being too good to possibly land a Jack Hughes but too bad to make a real dent is a bad place to be, and arguably more of the same for a franchise that just lost John Tavares.

Embracing reality late could save a lot of future anguish, and accelerate an ascent to levels not seen in decades. Ideally.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

2. Who stays, who goes?

The 2018-19 campaign isn’t just a tug-of-war between players trying not to fade into the sunset versus young players hoping to see the dawn of NHL careers.

There are interesting, prime-age guys whose futures aren’t particularly clear with the Islanders, and the uncertainty should be mutual in some cases, as making the wrong calls regarding terms and money could really put the Isles in a bad spot.

It had to feel comforting for Jordan Eberle to silence many of his Edmonton critics by enjoying the bounce-back season many analytics-minded people anticipated. Maybe Eberle feels a drive to stick with this team, particularly if he can maintain a spot alongside Barzal. That said, Eberle is 28 and only made the playoffs during one season, struggling enough that the Oilers overreacted and traded him. Eberle probably doesn’t want to be stuck in another murky rebuild, and he’s never enjoyed the opportunity to choose exactly where he played NHL hockey. From the Islanders perspective, they must decide if a guy who probably won’t be cheap – why would Eberle take more than a small downgrade from his $6M AAV in a new deal? – is worth keeping around. Will Eberle exit his prime by the time the Islanders are in a more legitimate place to contend?

That’s far the only noteworthy contract year for the Islanders to consider. Anders Lee, 28, has been a wonderful producer, yet he has to prove that he can remain a prolific sniper without Tavares. Brock Nelson, 26, received a one-year “prove it” deal, as did 27-year-old goalie Robin Lehner.

The Islanders would be wise to see how things go with most, if not all, of the players mentioned.

For one thing, management can see where this team ranks, and how the pieces fit together under a new regime and without a foundational star (and with a still-new one taking over).

Lamoriello shouldn’t lag too much, though, as many of these players could command some really nice trade assets. While Eberle’s a little pricey cap-hit-wise and might warrant salary retention, Lee is a huge bargain at $3.75M, Nelson’s at least interesting at $4.25M, and a Lehner resurgence could be awfully appealing for a team wanting goaltending security, considering his mere $1.5M cap hit.

The Isles nailed it when they converted picks to Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Oliver Wahlstrom, and Noah Dobson. Imagine if they could pull off a few more strong deals if it’s clear that 2018-19 isn’t their year?

3. How will Trotz handle young players?

The good news is that Barry Trotz is no stranger to developing young players. He did it for years with the Predators, helping Nashville show how you can build a team from scratch (at least when the expansion rules made it way tougher to do so).

There are questions about some of Trotz’s preferences. Consider that at least a subset of Capitals fans were frustrated with Trotz’s occasional reluctance to give young players like Andre Burakovsky the green light, and accepting the risks that come with such a commitment. Is it a coincidence that Filip Forsberg was demoted to the AHL late in Trotz’s Nashville days, while it seemed like he flourished overnight once Peter Laviolette took over? Maybe, but there are skeptics out there when it comes to this area of Trotz’s coaching philosophies.

The Islanders already possessed so-so, aging players who could stand in the way of younger players taking crucial next steps. They added more this summer in the form of Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, and Matt Martin.

Will this adversely affect players who need sink or swim opportunities very soon (if not now?), like Josh Ho-Sang? That could be a shame, as a lot of those veterans are unlikely to be a part of the big picture.

Losing Tavares is brutal, no doubt, but it’s up to the Islanders to bounce back in the best way possible, or really let the pain linger.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Islanders sign another depth player long-term, and it makes no sense

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You have to at least say this for the New York Islanders offseason: It has not been quiet, and it has definitely been interesting.

They continued making moves on Monday when they first announced a one-year contract for free agent center Jan Kovar after a successful career in the KHL. Kovar was an intriguing player that a lot of teams had interest in given his production in Russia, and he should get an opportunity to play a decent role in New York following the departure of John Tavares in free agency.

Is it a guarantee to work out? Not at all. But it is not a bad gamble for the Islanders to take on a one-year deal.

The move on Monday that raised some eyebrows was the announcement of a four-year — four years! — contract for restricted free agent Ross Johnston.

According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the contract will pay him $1 million per season.

He has played in 25 NHL games (24 of them coming this past season) and has scored three goals and six total points. He has spent the past three years mostly playing for the Islanders’ American Hockey League team Bridgeport where he has totaled 14 goals and 30 total points in 139 games. He has also accumulated 327 penalty minutes in those games and is a regular when it comes to dropping the gloves.

So the question that needs to be asked here is this: Why the need for a four-year contract — a contract that at Johnston’s age will buy out two years of unrestricted free agency — for a player with that resume?

Also worth asking: Why do the Islanders keep giving long-term contracts to depth players like Ross Johnston?

With Johnston re-signed, and combined with the free agent addition of Leo Komarov, the Islanders now have 10 players signed for at least the next three seasons (some of them for longer).

That list includes…

That is an interesting list to make long-term commitments to.

It does not even include Matt Martin, re-acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs a week ago, who is signed for the next two seasons.

[Related: Islanders keep stockpiling fourth-liners, reacquire Matt Martin from Leafs]

Bailey is coming off a huge season and even if he does not duplicate it will at least be counted no to be a top-line forward. No problem there.

Ladd’s first two years in New York have been rough but he, too, was at least signed with the intention to be a top-six winger, while Leddy and Boychuk (who is already 34) were signed to be top-four defensemen. Boychuck and Ladd may not have worked out as planned long-term, and they may not have been great risks given the ages at the time of their signings, but they were at least hoping for top-of-the-lineup players. To be fair, Boychuck did give them a couple of years of that sort of play.

The rest of that group, though, is mostly depth players. Players the Islanders have acquired or signed with the intention of being bottom-six or bottom-pairing players. Just about all of them cost between $1.5 and $3.5 million against the salary cap, meaning they are not just significant investments due to their term, but also financially.

This is a bizarre strategy in the sense that almost no other team in the NHL has constructed their roster in this manner. This is not a statement of opinion, either. This is a statement of fact.

Look at it from a numbers perspective.

During the 2017-18 NHL season there were 154 forwards that played in at least 20 games and averaged under 0.30 points per game. Only four of those players logged more than 15 minutes of ice-time per game, and none of them played more than 16 minutes per game. They are all, for all intents and purposes, bottom-six forwards.

Your third and fourth lines have value. A lot of it. The NHL today is about being able to balance four lines that can score, contribute, and impact the game in all situations. As a group, they are important. They are not, however, players that tend to get significant long-term contracts from teams, or players that carry a ton of value individually. Their value is in the sum of their parts. Recent Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh, Washington, and Chicago have built their bottom lines with some combination of young players on entry-level contracts, or veterans signed to short-term deals. The latter group of players are usually the first ones to be let go when salary cap space gets tight at the top of the roster. The former group usually plays its way into a bigger role with the team.

Out of that group of 154 forwards mentioned above, only 10 of them are currently signed for at least the next three seasons.

That list, in order of how long their current contracts run: Antoine Roussel, Leo Komarov, Cal Clutterbuck, Jay Beagle, Ross Johnston, Ryan Callahan, Casey Cizikas, Marcus Foligno, Zack Smith, Carter Rowney, Brandon Dubinsky.

Four of those players (Komarov, Clutterbuck, Cizikas, Johnston) are under contract with the New York Islanders.

Two other players on that list (Roussel and Beagle) were signed this offseason by the Vancouver Canucks. Harsh as it may sound, if you are building your team in the same image as the Jim Benning Canucks … that is probably bad.

There are a handful of players on that list that are at the end of longer term contracts. Martin Hanzal, for example, has two years remaining on a three-year contract that he signed with Dallas. Matt Martin has two years remaining on a four-year contract he signed with Toronto (and as noted above, he, too, now plays for the New York Islanders).

This, again, is only looking at forwards and does not even take into account the five-year contract they gave a defenseman like Scott Mayfield.

And it’s not like this is just one general manager doing all of this.

Cizikas, Clutterbuck and Mayfield were all signed on Garth Snow’s watch.

Komarov, Martin, and Johnston were all signed/acquired this offseason following the hiring of Lou Lamoriello.

This is very obviously an organizational approach.

What makes this potentially damaging to the Islanders is they are not really saving any salary cap space or putting the team in a better situation by doing this. Objectively speaking, players like Cizikas, Clutterbuck, Martin, Komarov, and Johnston are not adding much — if any — offense to this team this year or in the future. Out of that group Komarov is the only player that for his career averages more than 0.30 points per game — he is at 0.37. In a league and era where four lines that can score is a necessity, they have five roster spots and nearly $14 million in salary cap space going to plays that are not providing any meaningful offense (and again, that does not include the salaries going to Ladd, Boychuk, etc.) for this season and beyond.

They could almost certainly get the same level of production — if not more — for less against the salary cap by just rotating in different free agents on short-term deals and entry-level players every season. Even if you generously say that each of those players is *only* overpaid by $500,000 or $1 million per season and on their own they are just little mistakes, but as I pointed out following the addition of Martin those little mistakes add up to a few million dollars when you combine them all together.

When you are a team that just lost your franchise player in free agency, has two of your best remaining players (Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle) up for unrestricted free agency after this season, and will have to sign your new cornerstone player (Mat Barzal) to a new contract in two years when his entry-level deal is finished, that can add up to a big problem.

Related

–John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs
–What’s next for Islanders with Tavares out

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.

Islanders keep stockpiling fourth-liners, reacquire Matt Martin from Leafs

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Deep inside the smoldering crater that used to be the New York Islanders organization sits hockey man Lou Lamoriello, no doubt tirelessly working to try and make his new team competitive in the wake of franchise player John Tavares bolting for the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency two days ago.

The plan, such as it is, seems to revolve around acquiring every fourth-line player in existence.

It continued on Tuesday when the Islanders announced that they have acquired Matt Martin from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for goaltender Eamon McAdam.

Martin spent the first seven years of his career with the Islanders where he was a physical presence on their fourth-line before signing a four-year, $10 million contract in free agency with the Maple Leafs. He still has two years remaining on that deal and the Maple Leafs, suddenly rich in offensive talent, were no doubt happy to shed that salary as they will need every available dollar under the cap next season when Auston Matthews and William Nylander will be making piles of cash. That is the benefit for the Maple Leafs. Shedding salary.

As for the Islanders … well … it continues what has no doubt been a bleak offseason for their fanbase.

After losing Tavares to the Maple Leafs, the Islanders have responded by re-acquiring Martin, signing Leo Komarov away from Toronto on a four-year, $12 million contract, signing Tom Kuhnhackl to a one-year deal, and signing Valtteri Filppula to a one-year contract (complete with a no-trade clause, because of course).

If we are looking at things objectively, none of these players are going to move the needle in New York or do anything to improve a roster that just lost its best player and has not made the playoffs in two years. What makes it all even more baffling is the Islanders already have a bunch of players on the roster just like these guys in Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck.

Between Martin, Komarov, Cizikas, and Clutterbuck the Islanders are no doubt going to bring a lot of physicality to the rink every night. But when it comes to doing the things that lead to scoring goals, preventing goals and winning hockey games it is tough to see what these moves bring.

Maybe they will reunite the old fourth line of Cizikas, Martin, and Clutterbuck that everyone on the Island loved a couple of years ago. As far as fourth lines go it was okay, but nothing really special. And nobody builds their team from the fourth-line out. Especially when the rest of your bottom six might have the likes of Kuhnhackl, Filppula, and Komarov on it … which is for all intents and purposes another fourth line.

That group of players is going to count close to $16 million against the salary cap this season, and that doesn’t take into account the $5 million that Andrew Ladd — 60 points in 151 games over two years with the Islanders Andrew Ladd — will make.

In a vacuum and on their own any one of these moves is fine, I guess. They are not earth-shattering deals or anything that is going to submarine the franchise. But all of them? Together? In conjunction with losing Tavares?

Man.

Even with a young player as exciting as Mathew Barzal these are still dark times for the Islanders.

Related

John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs
What’s next for Islanders with Tavares out

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.