It’s been a long time since the New York Islanders were any good. Despite a few playoff berths here and there, the Islanders’ past decade has been defined more by venue changes, managerial shakeups, another venue change, and losing John Tavares, its franchise player and captain to free agency. From the middle of the 1970s through the middle of the 1980s, the Islanders were among the NHL’s elite franchises, but they’ve mostly been a punchline since. But that narrative could be shifting this season.
The Islanders currently sit in second place in the Metropolitan division, two points behind the Washington Capitals with a game in hand and a superior goal differential. In fact, they’ve already gained more points in 65 games this season than they did during all of last season. Any team would be expected to struggle immediately after failing to re-sign a player of Tavares’s caliber — only five players have scored more points than Tavares since his rookie season in 2009-10 — but the Islanders have somehow flourished.
Goaltending has been key to that success: Isles netminders Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have split time almost equally and boast the NHL’s third and fourth best save percentages, respectively, while their combined save percentage paces the league. Goaltending is as bad as it’s been in a decade across the NHL, but apparently no one sent the memo to Lehner or Greiss.
The exceptional play between the pipes has been bolstered by an emphasis on improving the defense by new coach Barry Trotz — who was hired fresh off a Stanley Cup win with the Capitals — and new president of hockey operations Lou Lamoriello, who won three Stanley Cups in New Jersey with a similar, defense-first philosophy. In 2017-18, the Isles gave up a league-high 296 goals. So far in 2018-19, they’ve given up a league-low 157. At their current rate, the Isles will surrender nearly 100 fewer goals in 2018-19 than they did just a season ago.
But Tavares is missed on offense: The Islanders rank in the bottom third of the league for goals scored, and none of their players rank among the top 65 point getters. Last season’s rookie of the year Mathew Barzal is having a solid second season, leading the Islanders with 52 points.
This doesn’t necessarily rule out the Islanders from winning the biggest prize: Defense can still be enough to prevail in this sport. The 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks ranked 17th in goals scored and second in goals allowed during the regular season, and things ended up working out pretty well for them.
Whether the Islanders finish the season as Stanley Cup champions remains to be seen, but what is clear is that for the first time in a very long time, they’re at the very least the kings of the New York metro area (yes, New Jersey Devils, we’re counting you). This isn’t exactly unfamiliar territory — the Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1979-80 to 1982-83 — but it’s territory they haven’t set foot in for a while. According to Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which estimates the strength of every team in the NHL,1 the Islanders haven’t been the outright best team in New York/New Jersey since 1992-93.
New York/New Jersey preeminence notwithstanding, the Islanders still have major problems on the business end of their operation. The team has the worst attendance in the NHL. The Devils and the Rangers might both be bad (and they are), but at least their fans are still showing up to watch hockey games (attrition can be fascinating, after all). Islanders fans have been notoriously absent for the last 20 seasons, but that’s because they were constantly given a reason to be absent. The team is good now, yet still the Barclays Center in Brooklyn had thousands of empty seats whenever they played there. (Attendance at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale has been far better, suggesting the Isles should probably play every game at that arena — and they will the rest of the regular season.)
It’s hard to predict what the Islanders are capable of in the playoffs. They’re currently ranked 3rd in PDO, which is the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage, which might suggest they’re in the position they’re in because they’ve been more lucky than good. Puck luck is real, and it might be favoring the Islanders so far this season. But that doesn’t mean it’ll hold for the playoffs.
Lucky or otherwise, if they continue winning at their current rate they’ll amass 102 points. That would be the franchise’s best total since the 1983-84 season, which is also the last time the Isles reached the Stanley Cup final. That team lost to some 23 year-old kid named Gretzky.
Neil Paine contributed research to this article.