Oct 28, 2018; Raleigh, NC, USA; New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz (right) looks on from behind the players bench against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

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Graziano: Islanders Riding Wave Of Intangibles Up Standings

Andy Graziano
January 16, 2019 - 1:37 pm
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Fans of the Islanders awoke this morning and could not be blamed if they thought they were dreaming when taking a gander at the latest NHL standings.

I mean, seriously, how many times have they been kicked in the face with an iron boot and had sand thrown in their eyes over years of mismanagement and questionable coaching that left a once proud franchise in shambles? This can’t be real, can it?

The latest haymaker was when former general manager Garth Snow, along with owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, failed to recognize the immense pull of the Toronto Maple Leafs as it pertained to John Tavares, and let the latter walk with zero compensation for one of the most talented players the team has ever had.

It was just prior to ‘the decision’ becoming official that Malkin and Ledecky went out and hired Lou Lamoriello to replace Snow and take his throne at the top of the Islanders castle. And Lou went right to work, with then-questionable signings Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula and Tom Kuhnackl, while working a trade to bring back fan favorite Matt Martin.

Komarov, save for the past two weeks, has been serviceable as a checking forward and penalty killer, although he will never be able to live up to a four-year term and a modified no-trade clause. Filppula has been very good, maybe rushed back from injury with the demotion of Josh Ho-Sang, but seems to have found his legs again, scoring the overtime winning goal last night in Brooklyn, a 2-1 win over the St. Louis Blues.

Martin has made a tremendous impact, not only in reuniting the ‘best fourth-line in hockey’, but bringing underrated and extremely valuable intangibles back to a locker room that had gone quiet and too reserved. The trio, along with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck, is proving that you most certainly never forget how to ride a bike.

Lamoriello’s most important acquisition, however, was one that could go down in Islanders history for a long time to come. Since Al Arbour, New York has shuffled through a sandbox of coaches, sifting through the grains, but always coming up with rocks. Terry Simpson, Lorne Henning, Mike Milbury (my goodness, can’t believe I even had to type it), Butch Goring, Peter Laviolette, Steve Stirling, Ted Nolan, Scott Gordon, Jack Capuano and Doug Weight were all fine men who did their best, but were hardly destined for glory in the record books.

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

Barry Trotz, though, is. The future hall-of-famer finally won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals last year, before jumping ship for a division rival, and has been the most responsible for the Islanders 26-15-4 start, which puts them only three points behind the defending champs. Also, if anyone cares, New York is only two points shy of the team Tavares left them at the altar for.

How in the world has this team, left for dead by all predictions and publications before the season began, get here? Trotz. How have they been able to rip off a 12-3-0 run, allowing only 30 goals in the process? Trotz. How did they go into Toronto for their first meeting with their old friend and spank the hosts, 4-0? Trotz. Beat the top team in all the land, 5-1? Trotz.

It’s all about Barry.

“But Andy, they still have an extremely high PDO of 102, showing, potentially, an unsustainable shooting percentage and save percentage”…Yes, that is true, but there is a precedent for higher than average PDO teams having playoff success. Advanced stats are useful, but often don’t paint a completed picture. It can never account for intangibles.

Intangibles and unexpected performances like Martin, Johnny Boychuk turning back the clock, Scott Mayfield playing the best hockey of his career, Devon Toews breathing fresh air and young legs when Thomas Hickey went down with a concussion, Robin Lehner proving you can overcome your demons and find contentment, along with success. Thomas Greiss playing like he wants to earn his $3.3 million dollars. Mathew Barzal continuing to dazzle, while becoming a more complete two-way player. Brock Nelson finally growing into his own at 27-years old, becoming, arguably, the Islanders best overall forward to date.

It has been a team effort from the start, something Trotz has encouraged, fostered and beats into the players' heads on a daily basis. New York, even though they are only three wins ahead of last year’s 45 game pace, have made it feel like 20, turning back the clock defensively and cutting 1.02 goals per game off their total (164-118). They have eight players with 10 or more goals, the first time since 1984-85 they have accomplished that and the first time in seven years that ANY NHL team has achieved that feat (stick tap to the Skinny).

“Some games are a little bit better than others. Today was a little bit of a learning day for us.” Trotz said last night in his post-game press conference. “Continue to learn from different experiences. We need to last momentum, grab it back. Stay resilient. When we needed a big play, a block or a save, we had that. It allows us to survive those moments.”

Trotz also spoke of the team-first attitude. “If you look at the ice time, we’re a pretty good four-line team when we’re healthy. I think it keeps everyone engaged. We had to make up some offense when JT left and other guys have stepped up and that’s what you want. You want to be in a position where when one line gets shut down, another steps up. They can all play against anybody and they all can contribute. We can beat teams in a lot of different ways.”

There’s a reason Trotz is headed where he’s headed. A reason he gets to wear his Stanley Cup ring with tremendous pride and accomplishment -- and he’s taking the Islanders along for the ride.

What the roster looks like after next month’s trade deadline remains to be seen. If the Islanders can keep up this pace remains to be seen. Is he given additional talent to attempt to accelerate his process? Lou…..it’s your move.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN