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Graziano: Islanders At The Midpoint - Where Do They Go From Here?

Andy Graziano
January 09, 2019 - 2:46 pm
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We have now officially reached the mid-point of the 2018-19 season after the New York Islanders lost to the Carolina Hurricanes last night, 4-3, in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Nassau Coliseum.

As disappointing as the loss was, especially given it was a second consecutive ‘clunker’ by the team, New York finishes the half strong, winning nine of 11 games, including a just completed six-game winning streak.

What we know about the Barry Trotz-led Islanders is they are much different from a year ago. Much more disciplined, much more defensive, much more responsible and using a ‘sum of all parts’ philosophy to rack up a 23-14-4 record and firmly position themselves, at present, in the playoff hunt.

Let’s recap the first half and discuss what to look for in the season’s final 41 games.

Record: 23-14-4, 50 points, 4th in Metropolitan division, 9th in Eastern conference

Goals for: 124, 12th

Goals against: 111, 2nd

Save percentage: .915, 5th (.933 at even strength, 3rd)

Power Play: 15.7%, 25th

Penalty Kill: 77.5%, 25th

Shots per game: 28.6, 28th

Shots against per game: 31, 18th

FOW%: 48.2, 24th

Corsi: 47.8%, 25th

Forwards

Mathew Barzal has made the adjustments to his game to accommodate Trotz’s new system and is performing right on par, leading the team with 38 points (12-26) in 41 games. Barzal is well on his way to producing a second straight point-per-game season and this time, it will be without the benefit of another star forward taking the attention of the opposing defense. Kid is a star.

Fully expecting to be locked up to a contract extension, Anders Lee is also doing his usual, playing with heart and grit, and the new captain is tied for the team lead at 15 goals with…..Brock Nelson. Yup, playing for a new deal as well, Nelson has been, arguably, the Islanders best two-way forward this season and should challenge his career high of 26 goals, set in 2015-16.

Josh Bailey is driving the struggle bus right now, with three points in his past seven games, and looking out of sync on many occasions. His early season start still has him on pace for 62 points, however, which would be the second time in the past three seasons he has eclipsed the 60-point mark.

Val Filppula and Leo Komarov have been better than expected, although last night was very forgettable for Uncle Leo and Jordan Eberle has looked better since coming off the injured reserve list. He needs a big second half in what is a very important contract year for the 28-year old. The ‘best fourth line in hockey’ looks to be just that again, with Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin showing that chemistry can be just like riding a bike – you never forget.

Michael Dal Colle has been improving each and every game, although he still has not been given a run with offensively capable linemates and Andrew Ladd is still a bit away from returning to action, coming off a broken ankle. That brings us to…Josh Ho-Sang.

Ho-Sang, although he produced only a goal and an assist in 10 games with 10 shots, did have strong possession numbers (58.4 Corsi 5v5, 10.8 relative Corsi, 59.7% defensive zone starts). Makes you wonder why he was sent back to Bridgeport yesterday to make room for Filppula, doesn’t it? Was quite the popular question on social media. With nobody talking, likely out of fear of Lou Lamoriello, possibly to avoid a PR distraction, you have to think it was for reasons off-ice related. Hoping that is not the case, but sometimes with Ho-Sang, as we’ve seen in the past, 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4.

Defense

Through 41 games last season, New York had allowed 150 goals (3.7 per game). This year, a remarkable turnaround has them at 111 (2.7). To shave a goal per game off your team defense should have Islanders fans ecstatic, as it’s much more sustainable for wins than the run-and-gun style we saw under Doug Weight.

Forgetting last night, Ryan Pulock has been much better in his second full season and fans need to realize just how hard it is to develop, and the time it takes, at defense in the National Hockey League. He should be a 20+ minute stalwart for a long time. Scott Mayfield has set career highs in scoring (3-12-15 in 39 games) and has been the team’s best two-way defender to this point. Johnny Boychuk has come on after a slow start and is holding his own at 35-years old, providing invaluable veteran leadership.

Where it cracks is with Nick Leddy and Adam Pelech. Leddy, since January of 2018, just doesn’t seem to be the same player. Often looking disinterested and a step behind the play, when someone of his skill level has a 44.5 Corsi number (worst among all defenseman on the team) and you’re relying on him to lead your transition game, alarm bells go off. Pelech has struggled defensively under Trotz and you’re hoping it’s just an adjustment phase he’s going through.

Devon Toews has stepped in since the injury to Thomas Hickey (concussion) and showed he belongs, in a big way. Scoring his first career NHL goal in style (overtime winner versus Chicago) and making another tremendous play last night, leading to the tying goal in the third period, he has done nothing to upset the work Trotz has done remaking the Islanders into a tough defensive team to play. His skating is superb and he very much deserves to stay, even after Hickey returns.

Goaltending

Lamoriello, on NHL radio this week, praised the team in front of his goaltenders, and it sure is making them look good. But, it’s not only that. Both are performing admirably, making the saves when the team needs them, especially Robin Lehner, signed to a one-year deal in the off-season.

The Ottawa/Buffalo castoff is first in GAA (15 or more GP) at 2.18 and second in save percentage at .927 and places third in ES save percentage at .935. The organization has given him plenty of support in his battle against alcohol and depression issues, the goaltender has been more than complimentary of that, and his play on the ice shows. With Ilya Sorokin no closer to coming to North America, Lehner could be a tremendous stop-gap instead of trying to lure Sergei Bobrovsky over with a sure to be regrettable contract offer in free agency.

Thomas Greiss has been capable as well, bouncing back after a disastrous 2017-18 behind a leaky defense. According to hockey-reference.com, Greiss actually has a higher quality start percentage (.591) than Lehner (.579). His numbers (2.69, .914) support the 5th highest team save percentage in the league.

The System

Bridgeport is following in the success of the big club to date, posting an impressive mark of 21-11-4-2, good for second place in the Atlantic Division of the American Hockey League (and second overall to boot).

Dal Colle is still with the Isles, Ho-Sang is on his way back, Sebastian Aho (3-21-24) is racking up big minutes in the absence of Toews and having an all-star deserving season.

With the Islanders weak down the middle, Otto Koivula might be the biggest surprise, though. Naturally a winger who is now playing center, he has been terrific with 12-13-25 and eight points during a five-game scoring streak. He’s showing impressive skills for a big man (6-foot-5, 190) and could really be an asset down the road.

Keiffer Bellows first year as a pro has gone smoothly to date (9-5-14) as he looks for an opening on the wing next training camp. Longer term projects include Oliver Wahlstrom, Noah Dobson, Bode Wilde and a potential wild-card in Ruslan Iskhakov.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead, the Islanders special teams need to improve for the team to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot. So far, the Scott Gomez led power play has been a major disappointment, as there is no good reason for Cal Clutterbuck to still be commanding a spot on the second unit. Clicking at a 21% success rate at the mid-point last year, they have plummeted to 16% to date this year. And it’s already cost them some valuable points. The penalty kill hasn’t been much better, even though it’s improved over a season ago - 78% from 73%. Only six teams have a lower success rate (only one is in the current playoff picture, the Colorado Avalanche).

The team returns to the Nassau Coliseum for good after February 16, playing their final 12 home games in the iconic building, which houses an atmosphere that makes Barclays Center look like a playground at 2am. Don’t kid yourself, fans make a difference, and with Trotz proclaiming that the arena could give the Islanders ‘an extra ten points’, it’s very much a real possibility that helps push them across the finish line and into the post-season.