Barry Trotz

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Graziano: Islanders Position-By-Position Season Preview

Andy Graziano
September 11, 2019 - 2:31 pm
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Rookies are in camp, veterans are on their way, expected to take physicals at the end of this week before Barry Trotz and his coaching staff look to replicate last seasons success, but add more playoff wins as training camp begins.

Given that the team rode a wave of good old fashioned ‘puck-luck’, which included bloated shooting and save percentages and made limited additions to an offensively-challenged top-nine, it might be a rough go for Trotz, just a season after winning the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach. 

The adage, ‘That’s why they play the games,’ could be a rallying cry once again for New York. Most of the teams in the Metropolitan division either improved or simply didn’t have to. Lou Lamoriello continues his search for more top-six scoring to complement dynamo Mathew Barzal and improve the team offense, which scored two goals or less in half of their games a year ago and suffered through an awful power-play.

For the position previews, we will go with expected names for the final 23-man roster. Of course, everything is subject to change over the course of the next four weeks.

2018-19 Record: 

48-27-7, 103 points, second in Metro division, eliminated in second round of playoffs by Carolina, four games to none.

Goals for: 223 (22nd)
Goals against: 191 (1st)
Power Play: 14.54% (29th)
Penalty Kill: 79.91% (18th)
Faceoffs: 47.4% (29th)

Team analytics (5v5):

5v5 shooting percentage: 7.9 (league average 7.5)
5v5 save percentage: .940 (league average .925)
PDO: 101.9 (100 is considered neutral)
Corsi for percentage:  47.8
Scoring chances for/Scoring chances against: 49.4

Expected cap space (assumed 23-man roster): $10,979,209 ($5.5 million on IR)

Forwards: (14)

Anthony Beauvillier, Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, Leo Komarov, Derick Brassard, Michael Dal Colle, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Tom Kuhnhackl, Joshua Ho-Sang, Andrew Ladd (Injured Reserve).

Barzal (18-44-62) will continue to do Barzal things and wow everyone with his skating, puck control and precision passing. I think the Islanders would benefit if he shot the puck a little more (179 shots), as he does possess a good enough shot to beat goaltenders from a decent distance. With all his talent, however, will come more attention from the opposition and that is where Trotz is praying for several things to go right down the line. 

Three straight seasons of 56+ points has, hopefully, silenced the ridiculous notion that Josh Bailey is not valuable to this team. And that’s not even accounting for his defensive acumen. He wasn’t ever projected to be a big goal scorer so fans should stop wishing for what never was. He even has added to his game by taking more faceoffs. Of seven players who took 150+ draws last year, Bailey’s 51.5% led the team.

Brock Nelson has now scored 20+ goals in four of six NHL seasons. Armed with a new contract, he becomes a very important, if not most important, forward in the top-six. With the extra attention being paid to #13, Nelson MUST repeat his 2018-19 performance on the scoresheet.

Anders Lee is back, rightfully so, wearing the ‘C’ proudly on his chest and will continue to do what he’s always done - score goals from the low slot. Eberle should be better with contract and personal issues behind him. He is a perfect compliment to New York’s first line. The best fourth line in hockey is back with a surgically repaired Cal Clutterbuck and led by Casey Cizikas, who potted 20 goals last year. With his previous career high of nine, regression is likely on that front.

That leaves us with the real hole in the Islanders top-12, granted everyone stays healthy. The third unit will be led by newcomer Derick Brassard and nobody knows what he has left in the tank, honestly. That’s not a criticism, just fact. However, I do think he can replace the production of departed Val Filppula (17-14-31). So, maybe at worst, it’s a wash? Where it gets tricky is I feel New York is wasting Michael Dal Colle on this unit, playing with the skating-in-sand Leo Komarov, who produces at replacement value. 

Defense: (7)

Nick Leddy, Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Thomas Hickey, Johnny Boychuk, Devon Toews, Scott Mayfield

This is the true strength of the team and where Trotz places the most faith. You don’t go from worst-to-first in goals against for the first time in 100 years by accident. A solid system paired with players who sacrificed at every turn to play it yielded great results. It will have to again.

I don’t have Noah Dobson in my initial projection because I just can’t see Trotz throwing 30-year old Thomas Hickey to the scrap heap so soon - Trotz likes his veterans. Maybe this situation resolves itself, as Hickey and Leddy were most often mentioned in trade rumors surrounding the team this summer and continuing into the fall. 

A spot for the talented and highly anticipated blueliner might have to wait until things get resolved on the trade front, if they do at all. At the end of the day, it’s a big decision as Dobson cannot play in the AHL this year. He would have to be returned to juniors if Lamoriello doesn’t clear the log jam.

Leddy could use a change of scenery the most out of all the holdovers it seems. For the past two years, he just has not played at the same level as when he was acquired in 2014 and seemed to really struggle defensively under the new system. Boychuk is not going anywhere with that contract and is a leader in the dressing room, so he will be here for the foreseeable future.

Pulock and Toews are emerging stars and BOA should already have songs in queue for the tandem. These two will be all-stars for years to come and give the Islanders a tremendously solid foundation of which to build on. Once Toews masters running a power-play, watch out for an explosion of offensive production.

Pelech and Mayfield are nothing spectacular, but that’s exactly what you need in your bottom pairings. Solid consistency.

Goaltending: (2)

Yeesh. Mitch Korn did his best work and resurrected the career of Robin Lehner and Thomas Griess, leading the pair to the Jennings Trophy and a Vezina nomination for the former. Lehner then capped off a remarkable year by winning the Masterton Trophy after coming out with his story of struggling with addiction and mental disease.

For those accolades, Lou Lamoriello decided to let him sit. And sit. And sit. Before Lehner and his agent finally packed their bags and signed a one-year deal with the Blackhawks. All because the Islanders brass wanted to sign 31-year old Semyon Varlamov to a four-year deal at a $5 million cap hit. Why you ask? All accounts are that this was done with another name in mind, Ilya Sorokin. Since the two are friendly off the ice and share an agent, well, you get the picture. 

So much for loyalty, but here we are. Korn is going to have to work his magic yet again with an aging, injury-prone goaltender who has put up a below-average save percentage three of the past four years. The good news is that Greiss is still around and now enters year two with the goaltending guru. As long as Varlamov doesn’t have to play 60 games (which he’s done only once in 11 years), maybe New York makes out okay. 

But, to expect a repeat of last year’s performance might be stretching things just a bit. Which is why they need…..more offense. Now you’re getting it. That will be the theme of training camp, the theme of the 2019-20 season and likely the biggest factor in determining if this team can make a repeat appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs.