Graziano: Recapping Biggest Islanders Stories From A Promising 2019

Featuring Barry Trotz, John Tavares And More

Andy Graziano
December 27, 2019 - 1:26 pm

As the calendar turns toward another new year, the New York Islanders complete the decade in good shape as far as the NHL standings are concerned. That doesn’t mean they don’t need help, however, as they prepare to play 14 games in 25 days, including their following three on the road in Chicago, Minnesota and Washington. 

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All things considered, the Islanders have had a successful 2019 and expect to push forward in 2020 and find more playoff success than they had last season. With that, we take a look at the biggest stories of the past year, as told from my eyes.

The Re-Emergence of Mathew Barzal

The Islanders' 22-year-old wonderkid is due for a new contract next season, and it will remain one of the most compelling storylines once the Islanders complete their year and move into off-season preparations. So far, team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello has been successful in getting team-friendly deals. I’m not so sure he can afford to be stubborn on this one, though.

Barzal has carried himself with professionalism and class, even when he was watching his offensive totals take a slip last year while learning the Barry Trotz way of doing that hockey. This year, we have witnessed an extraordinary player at both ends of the rink. He is leading the team in scoring with 16-16-32 in 35 games, he also has a 21.3% shooting percentage, and would you believe it if I told you he was the Islanders leading forward in defensive point share (estimated number of points contributed due to defense) at 1.2? You better, because it’s true.

Slaying the Dragon

There they were, matched up with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and all that talent, in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. While most agreed this was not necessarily a ‘bad’ matchup for New York, it still had to be considered a 50/50 proposition, especially when the greatest player the decade produced, Sidney Crosby, is lining up on the opposite side. Add to that Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, plus all that experience, and you can see why it was a toss-up going in.

At the end, the Islanders stood mighty, not only beating the Penguins, but sweeping them straight out of the playoffs while holding Crosby to hardly nothing, and riding a wave named Jordan Eberle. We all know the ending was not what everyone had envisioned, but the satisfying sweep certainly allowed fans to stand tall and proud of what their team accomplished.

Ryan Pulock Turns Into a True Top Two

Trotz relies on his defensemen to play prominent roles, obviously, and mammoth minutes. With the down year that Nick Leddy had, and the aging Johnny Boychuk trying desperately to turn back the clock, the Islanders needed someone to step up and assume the mantle of top-two minute-eater; someone that can play against the opposition’s top forwards and chip in at the offensive end as well. Pulock fulfilled all those wishes and more, improving with seemingly each shift.

This season, he leads the team in blueline scoring with 5-13-18 in 35 games, logging almost 22 minutes a night against the best the NHL has to offer, and placing third in point share at 3.2 (Barzal, Nelson). He and partner Adam Pelech play off each other perfectly, and it’s no surprise they are No. 1 and No. 2 in shots blocked on the club.

Barry Trotz
James Carey Lauder/USA TODAY Images

Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

For this reference to work, you have to imagine Trotz singing along to the iconic U2 hit from 1987. After the Islanders' disappointing finish to the 2018-19 season when they were swept, outskated and out-hustled by the Carolina Hurricanes, Trotz admitted the team needed more offensive punch. Lamoriello still has not been able to produce it. Fully respecting the fact that trades are not simply hitting the “X” button on your controller, it remains a concern as we head into 2020.

After finishing 21st in the league last year in goals scored, the Isles are 22nd at this point this year. Anders Lee is on pace for 25, which would be his third straight year of declining goal production (40, 28). Jordan Eberle is on pace for 10, which is unfortunately not a misprint. Casey Cizikas, after notching 20 last year, is on pace for 14. The Islanders’ second line ebbs and flows, while the third and fourth units have struggled to produce much of anything in the offensive zone. 

Michael Dal Colle, after notching 131 goals in 246 OHL games, has struggled to find any offense under Trotz’s system, as he has only five goals in 59 NHL games. Oliver Wahlstrom is at the World Junior Championship and New York still doesn’t know what they will get at the NHL level from Kieffer Bellows. There doesn’t appear to be any immediate help at the Bridgeport level.

Departure of the One They Once Called Savior

I didn’t want to talk about it, I really didn’t. But, if you’re talking about the stories that formed 2019, you simply can’t leave it out. Co-owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky perhaps trusted in John Tavares’ desire to stay with New York too much, reportedly not allowing the star forward to be traded prior to becoming an unrestricted free agent. Or, you can believe the other report that Tavares, himself, stressed his desire to NOT be traded. Either way, being that we’ll never know which one is more accurate, once the pull of his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs became a reality, it was too much and Tavares bolted.

Lee was named captain, Barzal took the throne and New York actually became a better TEAM. The time for criticism of how Tavares handled the situation is over. Any criticism over his style as captain is over. His time with the Islanders is over. And while many believed it would lead to a tragic careen off a cliff for the franchise, it turned out to be the exact opposite, because……

The Arrival of Trotz

We will end it here and rightfully so. The Islanders were able to get the Stanley Cup winning coach over with a substantial money offer, and the impact he has created not only has already been felt, but will be felt long after he’s gone, no matter how many years he remains at the helm. He has led this group, changed the culture and his presence has allowed for supplemental, but just as important, pieces to come over, including Mitch Korn, Piero Greco, Lane Lambert and Jaques Lemaire, among many others. 

It has become a true organizational 180. New York has quickly found its way to NHL respectability. The wins have come, the new building is coming. All that’s left is a championship.

Happy New Year to all the readers. Without you, we don’t exist. Hoping for a healthy, happy and prosperous 2020 to all. 

You can follow Andy on Twitter @AndyGraz_WFAN