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2018-19 Metropolitan Division Preview: New York Islanders

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With Tavares gone, the Islanders look to Barzal and newly hired Barry Trotz to improve on their 80-point finish from last season.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

New York made a plethora of offseason moves, including the additions of former Leafs’ general manager Lou Lamoriello and former Washington head coach Barry Trotz. The front office finally gets two experienced guys, one coming off a Stanley Cup championship, with their sights set on curing the seemingly everlasting sickness of the Islanders’ organization by offering some stability in a shaky, hostile environment.

That hostility comes from one of the biggest storylines of the summer: the free agent departure of five-year captain John Tavares, by far the best player on the team. To say that the Islanders will be better than they were last season is a dangerous call to make. On paper, the roster took an obvious hit, and the total win projections aren’t looking good to start the new season. However, after only putting together a sub-.500 35-37-10 (80 total points) record, finishing second-to-last in the Metro division, and coming in 26th in the NHL overall, things can only go up from here — at least, that’s the hope.

Trotz may be the key to fixing the Islanders’ woes

Trotz has a knack for taking a grossly underwhelming team and creating small amounts of success with them. At this point in time, that’s about all New York can hope for. When the Islanders still had Tavares, making the playoffs was the obvious goal every year — one they fell short to regularly. Now, under Trotz’s wing, those expectations aren’t necessarily at the forefront, but improving on last season’s dud of an outcome most certainly is.

With the Capitals, especially while en route to a Cup victory, a smothering defensive game was Trotz’s superpower against opposing teams. I’d imagine he’s going to take those same concepts and push them on his new team, creating a more palatable effort in the defensive zone.

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Islanders
As the newest head coach of a struggling roster without much prior leadership, Barry Trotz will try to cauterize the Islanders’ previous wounds.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Islanders were an absolute mess without possession last year, but much of it could’ve been attributed to poor systematic decisions and execution. Most have probably already blasted this from their memories, but Nick Leddy had a season to forget. Now, after adding in Trotz’s defensive schemes and welcoming back a big group of returning defensemen, they just might find something decent there. The current d-men are already willing to take shots and block shots, so there might be some positive workability there. If New York can build competence in its ability to play away from the puck and actually protect its goalie this season, other things just might follow suit. The Islanders may even surprise us.

The Islanders have young, high-end talent that’ll only get better each season

Mathew Barzal was one of the most explosive offensive players last season, and because of that, he was on top of the final voting tally for the Calder Trophy. At the ripe age of 21, the speedy Rookie of the Year put together an impressive first-year résumé to build off of for his upcoming second season. With 85 points (22 goals, 63 assists) in 82 games played — more than a point per contest — there isn’t much more you can ask from a new guy trying to make an early impression. There’s no doubt the Islanders’ expect Barzal to hit the ground running once the regular season kicks off to avoid that dreaded sophomore slump. Hopefully the spotlight being on him now doesn’t shake his confidence.

2018 NHL Awards - Press Room
With an electric rookie season boosting Mathew Barzal up to the top, he’ll look to continue his early success.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Anthony Beauvillier rounded out that prolific line with Barzal and Jordan Eberle (25, goals, 34 assists), and put together a solid rookie stat line to boot. His 36 points (21 goals, 15 assists) in 71 games played were an admirable complement to one of the league’s best lines. That combination accounted for a 53-percent Corsi and a plus-12 rating in goals at 5-on-5 in 363 minutes played together. The Islanders’ other three lines were less successful — managing a lowly 44-percent combined Corsi, and that was including Tavares on the top line. With him gone to Toronto, it’s evident the Barzal line with jump up to top duties.

New York’s bottom-six leaves much to be desired

The first thing Lamoriello did as the Islanders’ new GM was bring in a bunch of new players to boost the latter half of the offense. While a hard-working GM making moves and bringing in fresh bodies sounds really good to the coaching staff and fan base, the guys he brought in aren’t exactly barnburners, and it’s unlikely they’ll bring much positive skill or value to the team.

Additions like Valtteri Filppula, who Penguins fans may remember stinking the place up whenever the team faced Philadelphia in Round 1 of the playoffs, Matt Martin, who’s meh, Leo Komarov, who Trotz would be better off leaving on the bench, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck, who aren’t much better, and of course, Tom Kuhnhackl, the former defensive-minded fourth-line winger for Pittsburgh, the Islanders have a pretty abysmal roster past that incredibly good top line and decent second combination.

Fans may be begging for the team to call up skilled youngsters like Joshua Ho-Sang, who I think should already be on the team, and Kieffer Bellows, who had a great preseason game performance against the Flyers, come midseason when Barzal’s and Eberle’s backs are broken from carrying their team so much. With all the recent additions, however, there’s at least a six-man pile up clogging both their ways to the NHL.

Buffalo Sabres v New York Islanders
Joshua Ho-Sang keeps griding the AHL stone, hoping to get permanent placement on the Islanders’ NHL roster.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

It won’t be a great year for the Islanders, but shouldn’t be worse than 2017-18

The Islanders will need to have a lot of luck fall into their laps if they want to make the playoffs, and if they want to avoid the ongoing conversation that their season is destined to implode without Tavares, they’re going to have to make some serious adjustments on both sides of the ice. Trotz is a good starting point. Finishing with more than 80 points seems like a reachable goal for a club starving for something — anything — positive.

The Penguins have their first matchup with the Islanders Tuesday, October 30.