Graziano: Plenty Of Pleasant Surprises In Islanders’ Hot Start

New York Riding 5-Game Winning Streak

Andy Graziano
October 25, 2019 - 2:06 pm
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The New York Islanders are in the middle of a stretch that has shaken many a pundit to their collective knees. Being completely honest and taking full accountability, I might not have seen it coming, either. Maybe I should have.

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In the middle of a three-game-in-four-night stretch that will be followed by a four-day break, the Islanders rattled off their fifth straight victory Thursday night, 4-2 over the Arizona Coyotes at Nassau Coliseum before boarding a plane to Ottawa for a meeting with the Senators on Friday.

It brings New York to 6-3-0 on the young season. The Islanders began their largely successful 2018-19 campaign 4-4-1 following the same number of games. After a year when coach Barry Trotz politely asked for more offense and fans downright screamed for it, none was acquired. Michael Dal Colle was promoted to a regular role in training camp, Joshua Ho-Sang was banished to Siberia and they called up a player whose name sounds like a nice glass of vino you pair with a succulent steak.

Brock Nelson having a terrific October, leading the team in scoring (4-5-9)? Josh Bailey doing Josh Bailey and not caring how many dislike him by the hands of their own illogical minds (4-4-8)? Thomas Greiss continuing his magic act with Mitch Korn (2.21, .930)? Seemingly, predictable.

Devon Toews
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

But how about the unpredictable? Here are some ups and downs as the Islanders approach their first 10-game segment of the 2019-20 season.

• Mathew Barzal is shooting more, but not as much as people think. After averaging 2.07 shots per game as a rookie, Barzal upped that in his sophomore campaign to 2.18. This year, he sits at 2.44 through nine games (22 shots). Where he is seeing a significant uptick is shooting percentage, which can be a fickle stat to track, always due for regression at a moment’s notice. Barzal has four goals already after only tallying 18 a season ago. In my season preview, I said I expected him to revert to his rookie scoring pace, and right now he’s making me look decent. (I rarely look good.)

• The rise of Devon Toews is happening. It’s something we all expected, but perhaps not this soon. At such a tough position to master, the defenseman is off to a roaring start, with six points in his first nine games and solid defensive play. His Corsi, if you believe in such things, could be better at 46.8, but as the Islanders continue to improve in 5v5 situations, that will take care of itself. Nobody outside of Nick Leddy is even capable of transitioning at speed other than Toews. 

• Jordan Eberle getting hurt is a bummer. Eberle has played 97% of all eligible games over the past three seasons but took an unfortunate bump along the right-wing boards in the fifth game, which has sidelined him the past four contests. There have been no reports of the extent of the injury he suffered, but after a strong preseason, he was expected to combine with Anders Lee and Barzal for an electric first line. A slow start for the entire team cannot be solely placed on Eberle’s shoulders, and the Islanders need him back as soon as possible, because ...

• Tom Kuhnhackl was on the first line. On Thursday night, Trotz wisely inserted Josh Bailey with Barzal and Lee, with Cole Bardeau in the lineup for an ailing Leo Komarov. But Kuhnhackl was there for too long. And shouldn’t be again. That is not a knock on him, but a realistic analysis of who he is as a player. A serviceable third- or fourth-line skater who can help out on the penalty kill and provide a veteran presence. But asking him to keep up with Barzal is taking him way out of his comfort zone and not helping the center generate any offense, either. If anything, it perhaps causes Barzal to try and do too much, thereby hurting his overall game.

• Trotz, who said Thursday night that the Islanders were “dogs on the bone, right from the start” have really found their groove defensively. Again. After allowing 13 goals in their first four games, including 10 in back-to-back losses, it’s been back to the grind.  They have since given up just nine goals in five games. It’s hard to really judge the performance of Greiss or Semyon Varlamov to this point as the New York blueline has been so good at reducing high-danger scoring chances against (averaging 10 in the first four games, and seven since).

Does this team still need offense? Sure. For now, it is relying on the same exact formula that won it 48 games a season ago. Nobody is complaining about that.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN.