Islanders coach Barry Trotz looks on from behind the bench against the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 4, 2018, at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Graziano: 1st-Place Islanders One Of Early-Season Surprises

Thanks To Trotz, NY Is Sitting Pretty So Far

Andy Graziano
November 08, 2018 - 12:07 pm
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We’re 14 games into the 2018-19 NHL season, and let’s be completely honest here: There is nobody who would have predicted the New York Islanders would hold first place in the Metropolitan Division right now. And even though it’s still early and some teams have not gotten their feet beneath them yet, some wouldn't have thought that would have been possible at any point of the year.

It’s a true first place, too, with New York holding a game in hand on four teams and sitting even in games with two others. Only the New Jersey Devils have played fewer games than New York at 13, and they trail the Islanders (8-4-2, 18 points) by five points.

It’s been a mix of good, bad and ugly, but one thing is apparently clear: The arrival of future Hall of Fame coach Barry Trotz has had a lot to do with it. Maybe even everything to do with it. We have seen accountability not evident for a long time on the roster, seen harsh comments after a game the team just did not show up to (4-3 shootout loss to Montreal) and seen a defensive system implemented that, while allowing tons of shot attempts, has reduced the quality and danger of those shots.

Even though the team has a league-high PDO of 105.5 (combination of shooting percentage and save percentage) and a league-low Corsi (shot attempts for-against) of 42.5, with 18 points out of 28, they are banking points early in the season that could be used for withdrawal later. And it’s come with a difficult schedule that had them start with an insane amount of road games, a West Coast swing and too many days off, delaying adjustments to Trotz’s style of play.

The good from a team perspective is a positive goals for/goals against differential in every period this season (plus-1, plus-7, plus-3) and a 16th-ranked penalty kill, a long way from league worst last year. The Isles are undefeated in the division (6-0-0) and have not lost when scoring first (7-0-2). With points in seven straight games, they face a Tampa team Thursday night without its best defenseman (and one of the league’s finest) in Victor Hedman with a chance to take two points off the Eastern Conference leaders. The Islanders swept the Pittsburgh Penguins (6-3, 3-2 in shootout) and thumped the Los Angeles Kings on the road, 7-2.

On the minus side, they are coming off their worst game of the season and still seem to have issues clearing their defensive zone with consistency. Not to mention turnovers in the defensive end that have to be cleared up and struggles with speedier teams' forecheck pressure. On offense, they seem stagnant at times, although that could be a result of Trotz’s emphasis on team defense.

On the plus side individually, Josh Bailey (three goals, 12 assists, 15 points) and Anders Lee (five goals, eight assists, 13 points) have been doing just fine adjusting to life without John Tavares, Brock Nelson leads the team in goals with seven, and Casey Cizikas is on a career-shattering pace with five goals, four assists and nine points in 13 games. Ryan Pulock has picked up his game defensively and settled down from some early-season jitters, along with Adam Pelech.

The Isles could use more from Mathew Barzal (one goal, 12 assists, 13 points), who appears to be gripping his stick too tight and pressing things instead of letting the game just come to him, but that will surely settle down as he adjusts to both a new style of play and tighter checking. Jordan Eberle has been playing well since being paired back with the second-year center, and it’s only a matter of time before more goals find the twine. I hesitate with Anthony Beauvillier (one goal in 13 games), as he looks to be playing fine, just not shooting enough (24 shots on goal). Nick Leddy has not been the same since last January and could be trade bait.

On the farm, it’s great to see such a strong start out of Michael Dal Colle (seven goals, seven assists, 14 points in 11 games), and Joshua Ho-Sang has picked up his production since a scathing interview with the New York Post last week (10 points in last four games). Devon Toews is doing Devon Toews with 12 points in 13 games and will be the first call-up on defense once the need arises.

All in all, it’s been a mixed bag for the Islanders, but as long as they keep accumulating points while adjusting to a new system and style of play, they could be one of the surprise teams of the season. It’s happened before and will happen again. Could be sooner and closer than we think.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN