Our New York Islanders 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The Islanders entered the 2018-19 season with zero expectations. The loss of their captain and leading scorer, John Tavares, a third consecutive season with a decrease in points, down to 80, and new front office staff led many to believe that the year was more or less going to be a write-off while the team developed and adjusted.
But, to the surprise of the hockey world, the Islanders persevered and succeeded throughout the year. The impact of bringing in experienced staff such as Lou Lamoriello as general manager and reigning Stanley Cup Champion coaches Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert, and goalie guru Mitch Korn was immeasurable.
On the ice, the team was tough to play against. Lamoriello basically brought in parts of two lines whose specialty is physical dominance, aggression, and relentless forecheck. These were led by Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, and Tom Kuhnhakl who joined Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck already on the roster. The veteran leadership and physicality was often relied on by Trotz as a line matching tool. It was especially evident in the playoffs when some combination of these players (most often Martin-Cizikas-Clutterbuck) was being thrown out against other team’s top lines and still succeeding. The strength of the defense also comes into play here, as many of the Islanders defensemen had excellent seasons and were a big part of the team’s shutdown style of play.
Although they were not offensively dominant, their defensive play and the seasons turned in by goalies Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss were absolutely amazing, as they won the William Jennings Trophy for least goals against over the season. Losing Robin Lehner in free agency could have a huge impact on the team’s success this season, as his performance in particular won the Islanders a handful of games. We will have a chance to see if the goalie was a product of the system or the catalyst of the system itself as Semyon Varlamov gets a chance to tend the crease for the Islanders this coming season.
The Islanders are in a tricky position development-wise, at the moment. Although they have a handful of young players already leading the offensive side of the team and their primary defensive core is in their mid-20’s, the team’s veteran leaders are beginning to age out of their primes and their prospect pool is currently weak. Aside from a few high-end prospects, including Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson, there is not much depth coming up through the system. This is partly due to a bunch of their best prospects jumping up to the NHL over the last couple seasons and partly a decade-plus of questionable direction from Garth Snow. The prospect pool will take some time to replenish with what the team needs. The new front office and coaching staff have a couple years of safety before needing a major influx of youth pushing into the roster.
At centre, the Islanders will once again be led by their most offensively dominant forward, Mathew Barzal. The major part of the gift from the Chiarelli-era Edmonton Oilers, Mathew Barzal has taken the league by storm with his offensive instincts. He is one of the best in the league at stickhandling, finding open teammates, and routinely making it appear as if there is no one actually defending him. Although his point totals took a slight dip in his sophomore season, he still factored in on just under thirty percent of the team’s offense and the production drop makes sense given the defensive prioritization put forth by the new coaching staff. The hope is that this year, Barzal is given more freedom offensively and that his linemates can contribute with him to bring his numbers back up to his rookie season level.
Brock Nelson is seemingly locked in as the number two centre at this point, and is a formidable option in that role as he is good for at least 40 points per season. Recent free agent acquisition Derick Brassard will give the team another option for a bottom six centre, as he will slot in on the third or fourth line. Brassard is coming off of a difficult year marked by a major drop in production, play quality, and moving between teams. The Islanders will be his fourth team in seven months. The type of line he will be joining should be given a boost by Brassard’s offensive instincts. Although he struggles with consistency, he is able to create and make plays. He should be motivated to begin the season, and the Islanders would benefit greatly from an offensive boost to the bottom half of their forward group.
I see no reason to suggest that anyone other than Casey Cizikas will centre the last of the forward lines. Trotz and Lamoriello have put together one of the best fourth forward lines in the league with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck on his wing. This line can be used in any situation but excels in shutdown play and stifling the top players on opposing teams with their physicality and checking abilities. These three will almost certainly remain together this upcoming season.
The Islanders will need their strongest wingers to increase their offense this season. Notably, the two players who are most likely to join Barzal on the first line. Anthony Beauvillier has spent a good portion of his career playing with Barzal, but has never even come close to matching Barzal’s production level, sitting at around half of the points that Mathew records. Right there is one major way for the team to score more.
Secondly, Jordan Eberle had the worst regular season of his career in terms of offensive production. Although Jordan had an excellent run in the playoffs, which also included him showing off some coaching/leadership skills while on the bench by directing young players and drawing up plays.
Right behind Eberle is Josh Bailey, who was the team’s second leading scorer last season with 56 points, behind only Barzal. Bailey may be the better offensive option to join Beauvillier and Barzal on the top line. Bailey has finally found the offensive side of his game over the last couple seasons, but tends to be more of a playmaker than a sniper with a career high of 18 goals. For that reason, Eberle, who has always been more of a shooter/sniper type of player, may be a more suitable option for that line, if he can continue his strong play from the playoffs.
Captain Anders Lee resigned with the Isles over the summer, putting an end to the anxiety over having a captain leave in free agency two consecutive seasons. He will initially slot on the second line alongside Brock Nelson, but his offensive talents may be best utilized alongside Mathew Barzal in the long-run and it may make sense to pair the two together when possible. The line combination analysis for the duo shows excellent advanced stats and Lee’s best lines are the ones he is playing with Barzal. Nevertheless, Lee is expected to start the year on the second line with one of Jordan Eberle or Josh Bailey.
One of the players who has drawn the most attention on the Islanders roster is Josh Ho-Sang. He is an incredibly talented prospect who has 24 points in 53 NHL games but has never stayed on the roster for long periods of time. He does have a more outspoken personality and has major question marks around his defensive responsibility, but with the recent signing of a one-year contract, has put himself in a succeed now situation. He currently slots in on the NHL roster for the upcoming season, as the Islanders are in need of depth on the right wing. This would have him playing with Leo Komarov and Derick Brassard, two veteran players with valued leadership qualities. This season will be a final test for Ho-Sang on whether or not he can make the necessary improvements to his game that will allow him to stay in the NHL full-time or if he tops out as an AHL tweener who never could get his game to an NHL level. If Ho-Sang cannot hold a spot in the lineup, Tom Kuhnhakl will be eager to jump in and provide a speedy, physical game to the third line to further compliment Leo Komarov.
This leaves Andrew Ladd on the outside looking in, to begin the season. He hurt his ACL back in March and will be just getting back into skating and hockey shape through the latter stages of the summer. He only played 26 games last season due to various injuries but is now going to try to come back after dealing with serious issues in both legs in one year. As he reaches the last years of his career and tries to remain in a league that is growing ever faster, full recovery from these injuries is vital to his ability to remain an NHL player.
Oliver Wahlstrom, although he had a tough year that saw him regress from his stellar performance the year before, will be available as an option on the right wing if he can rebound moving into the season. A more offensive player, he may be useful to help the scoring depth on this Islanders roster. But, a full year to develop in the AHL would not hurt.
Luckily for the Islanders, their defense will remain almost exactly the same as it was last season. The group that helped the team give up the fewest goals in the league will have another opportunity to prove their worth. The pairings that played the most together last season were Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, and Devon Toews and Scott Mayfield. Thomas Hickey also drew in for 40 games and will be looked to as a reliable option for injury fill-in or general lineup changes.
One area the Islanders should be looking to improve their offense is from the defensemen. Their top scoring defenseman last season was Ryan Pulock with 37 points. No defenseman had 10 goals, Pulock was the closest with 9. Another year of development and a full season for Devon Toews may give the Islanders a 40 point defender. Otherwise they will be hoping that Nick Leddy can bounce back to his 40 point production levels from the previous seasons. Although overall they were not lacking, as their offensive production from the defense was comparable with other teams across the league, they were missing a high-level offensive threat from the back-end. This is something that most top teams possess. Although it is part of the defensive-oriented system employed by the new coaching staff and an off-year is understandable given the difficulty of transitioning to a new way of playing.
Robin Lehner has left in free agency and Semyon Varlamov will join Thomas Greiss in the Islanders’ net. Varlamov has been an average starter in his time with Colorado, but the opportunity to come to a defensive team may boost his numbers. He is expected to split the crease with Greiss, who played in 43 games last season as well, recording an impressive .927 SV% and 2.27 GAA.
New York Islanders 2019-20 Prediction
3rd – 5th Metropolitan Division
Although the Islanders are expected to regress moving into this season, the Metro Division is not the Thunderdome it once was, especially for divisional spots. The team has shown the ability to play with the best of them, but a year like they just had will be difficult to replicate now that the rest of the league will have had the summer to analyze tape of their system and find a way to counter it. The Islanders will most likely be in strong contention for a wild card spot, possibly third in the division. I do not expect the goalies to be as exceptional as they were last season, but the offensive production of the team should increase enough to balance that out. They have a couple of stronger closest competitors in the division in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and the Rangers and Devils are wildcard options for a breakout year, but each of those teams could just as easily falter and give the Islanders an easier path to a divisional playoff spot.