Puck Drop Preview: 2019-20 New York Islanders

The team surrounds Greiss after a loss, something the 2019-20 New York Islanders hope to limit next season.
RALEIGH, NC - MAY 03: New York Islanders teammates console New York Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss (1) after getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes after a game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Islanders on March 3, 2019 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2019-20, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2019-20 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Our series continues with the 2019-20 New York Islanders.

2019-20 New York Islanders

2018-19 Season

The New York Islanders were perhaps one of the most exciting teams to watch last season. In a league where scoring was rampant, the Islanders old-school, defensively-minded approach propelled them to among the best in the league. Boasting a tremendous mix of defence and goaltending, the Islanders were able to allow the fewest goals-against in the entire NHL over the course of the season. In total, they were only scored on 196 times, the only team in the league under 200.

This was a major turn-around from their 2017-18 form, where they ranked worst in the league in terms of goals-against. Going from the worst team defensively to the best is largely thanks to new-hire Barry Trotz. Trotz was hired in June of last year, only a few months after his Stanley Cup win with the Washington Capitals. In less than a single summer, he managed to completely overhaul the Islanders playing style. Putting heavy emphasis on the defensive side of the game. Trotz spread out ice time and emphasized limiting shots from below the circles. This effectively eliminated any statistical threat imposed by opposing teams.

While Trotz helped significantly, the duo of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss were the real difference makers. They combined for one of the best goaltending-seasons in NHL history. Both goalies recorded a save percentage of over .920. These great percentages effectively won the duo the William Jennings Award last season. Lehner’s tremendous year also earned him a Vezina Trophy nomination, although he lost to Andrei Vasilevskiy.

2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs

The team’s tremendous ability to keep pucks out of the net ultimately placed them second among the Metropolitan Division last year. They moved on to the post-season, where they faced a surprisingly strong Pittsburgh Penguins team. Thanks to their strong defence, though, they were able to limit the strong Penguins offence to a mere six goals. The Islanders swept the Penguins in four games.

The Islanders weren’t able to trump the sensational Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, however. The defence that had carried the Islanders through the entire season thus far, fell to shambles as the Hurricanes recorded 13 goals in four games. The Islanders offence wasn’t able to keep up and the team was ultimately swept by Carolina.

2019 Off-Season

For as great as the Islanders 2018-19 season was, their off-season was lacklustre at best. In the grand scheme of things, the Islanders had one goal for this summer. To re-sign every pending free-agent. Many of their stars were entering the open market. Names including Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier, and Lehner. Bringing back every one of these players was obviously crucial to the team’s success moving forward.

New York general manager Lou Lamoriello did a good job of accomplishing this goal. Eberle inked a five-year contract extension in early-June, less than a month after fellow top-six star Brock Nelson signed his own six-year extension. The team then turned their attention towards the 2019 NHL Draft, where they acquired strong Swedish forward Simon Holmstrom, before getting right back to re-signing notable names. On July 1, Lee agreed to a seven-year deal. As the summer came to a close, restricted free agents Joshua Ho-Sang, Michael Dal Colle, and Beauvillier all also agreed to new deals with the team.

Signings

The one name to not re-sign was the phenomenal Lehner. He instead took his talents to the Chicago Blackhawks, signing a one-year, $5 million deal. This was a fairly big surprise to many, with Lehner seemingly finding a home in New York during his tremendous 2018-19 season. The Islanders instead chose to sign Semyon Varlamov in his place.

Varlamov signed a four-year deal with the Islanders, with a daunting cap hit of $5 million per season. This is quite a hefty payload for a goaltender who has seen a decline over the past few seasons. While not a bad goalie, Varlamov definitely struggled last season. He played in 49 games, with the latter 25 being of particular note. In those, he set a record of 9-11-5 with a mediocre save percentage of .907 and a goals-against-average of 2.88. These aren’t terrible numbers but were enough to warrant a boot from the starting role. In his place was Phillip Grubauer, who performed much better in the latter half of the season, into the playoffs.

The Islanders also signed journeyman Derick Brassard to a one-year deal. Brassard, like Varlamov, is dancing on the line between a solid depth option and a struggling has-been. He has scored over 40 points, or at a pace of over 40 points, seven times through his 12-year career. This includes one 58 and one 60 point season. That was years ago, however, and Brassard has seen a considerable decline since. Last year, he managed 23 points in 70 games. This was split among three different teams. If he stays at this production rate, Brassard will reside among the Islanders bottom-six for most of the season. However, a consistent role in New York could be what he needs to rebound to his former glory. It’s this that the Islanders are betting on with their one-year signing of the 31-year-old forward.

Projected Lines

Offence

Anthony Beauvillier – Mathew BarzalJosh Bailey

Anders Lee – Brock Nelson – Jordan Eberle

Matt MartinCasey CizikasCal Clutterbuck

Andrew Ladd – Derick Brassard – Joshua Ho-Sang

Extras: Michael Dal Colle, Leo Komarov, Ross Johnston

The Islanders offence will look very similar to the one the team rolled out last season. The chemistry among these lines was simply too good to mix up. Moving forward, the Islanders will look to build off of this chemistry and take advantage of the admittedly high potential their forwards have.

Top Six

The top-six is fairly interchangeable if players don’t meet the coaching staff’s expectations, with seemingly every possible combination of players seeing ice time last year. With that said, there’s also a fairly high chance that the two lines mentioned end up set-in-stone by mid-season.

The top-line saw plenty of ice time together last season and were absolutely terrific. Despite being on a New York offence that struggled to find the back of the net, this trio was able to record 18 even-strength goals through 59 games together, or roughly 439 minutes of ice time. Partnering alongside Barzal and Bailey was also one of the only things that brought out the good side of Beauvillier. He struggled to find his consistency scoring last year elsewhere. With Beauvillier poised for a breakout season next year, there’s no doubting he’ll start the year alongside Barzal and Bailey yet again.

The second line is, in essence, simply the leftovers. All three players have seen time skating with the team’s top line but are beat out by the tremendous potential of the trio above them. With that said, Lee, Nelson, and Eberle all spent time together last year and were one of the team’s most efficient lines. They also netted 18 even-strength goals, tying for most on the team with the aforementioned line. It’s a line of three scorers that clearly blended well together last season. Despite taking a backseat to the young stars on the top line, this trio of veterans will be the clear difference-maker in many games.

Third Line

The third line is another familiar line for Islanders fans. This trio embodied the nitty-gritty style of play last season. They made it work, too, netting 17 even-strength goals despite averaging just under nine minutes of ice time together each game. They also sparked an unexpected prowess in Czikas, whose 20 goals last season shattered his previous career-high of nine. With so much positive coming from this line last year, there’s not much of a debate against giving them the extra ice time they deserve. At least to start the season to see if they can recapture what they had last year.

Fourth Line

This leaves the fourth line, composed of three players that need to prove they can play at the NHL level. All three will likely earn a notable boost up the lineup as the season progresses but will have to start slowly. Ladd is returning from an injury that held him out of most of last season. If returns to his pre-injury form, he provides a great spark to the Islanders bottom-six. If not, Dal Colle will be quick to steal his role. Dal Colle was a strong member of the Islanders offence last year. He didn’t quite impress enough in his 28 games to warrant an opening-night roster spot. Of course, this could change if he has a strong showing during training camp and the pre-season.

Ho-Sang will also need to hit the ground running next season to stay in the team’s lineup. He has put up terrific numbers in the AHL over the years and is due for a shot at the NHL. All off-ice issues aside, there’s no doubting Ho-Sang has the potential to bolster any lineup he’s on. He’ll hopefully get his shot to keep his head down and score this upcoming season. If all goes well, he’ll surely get every chance to succeed.

Defence

Nick LeddyRyan Pulock

Devon ToewsScott Mayfield

Adam PelechJohnny Boychuk

Extras: Thomas Hickey

The Islanders defence is a fairly unsuspecting group. They’re comprised of strong offensive defencemen, like Leddy and Pulock. As well as defensively-minded names like Toews and Mayfield. Finding a consistent mix of these playing styles is going to be very important in staying consistent next year.

With that said, pairing Leddy and Pulock together seems like the best plan of action. They tallied 16 even-strength goals together last season, a stat that will surely skyrocket this upcoming year. The duo adds a healthy boost to the Islanders offence, a boost that’s much needed.

Meanwhile, the second pairing is the exact opposite of the first. They’re much more defensively-minded. During their time playing together last season, the duo of Toews and Mayfield recorded the highest goals-for (17) and Corsi-for percentage (53.4) among all defensive pairings on the Islanders. They were simply terrific together. With Toews looking to have a breakout season next year and Mayfield hoping to continue his pattern of steady improvement, this pairing could become even more dangerous with increased time in the 2019-20 New York Islanders season.

This leaves Pelech and Boychuk together on the bottom pairing, an admirable duo. When together last season, albeit in minimal time, they allowed the fewest goals of any defensive pairing. They also scored nine goals for themselves, looking fairly well-rounded despite neither player being particularly strong individually. If they can keep up this strong overall play, they’re a tremendous third pairing for the Islanders.

Extras

Hickey should be available to slot in wherever necessary next year, retreating to a seventh-man role after suffering a season-ending injury in December of last year. He had a mere four points in the 40 games he did play. This was a disappointing number for a player that received a modest 18-and-a-half minutes in ice time each game. Going into next year, he’ll provide great depth as a healthy scratch.

Goalies

Thomas Greiss

Semyon Varlamov

This season, Greiss is likely to finally see the starting role he deserves. While overshadowed by Lehner’s Vezina-calibre season, Greiss quietly recorded an amazing stat line last season. He had a save percentage of .927, tied for fourth in the league, and a goals-against-average of 2.28, again fourth in the league.

With Varlamov showing a healthy amount of inconsistency in recent years, there’s no reason why the Islanders wouldn’t give Greiss a chance to repeat his tremendous numbers. If he isn’t able to, a likely rejuvenated Varlamov will be ready to take on any sort of responsibility. While a definite downgrade from the Lehner-Greiss duo that shook the league last season, the Islanders goaltending is still certainly among the most well-rounded in the Eastern Conference. The team will likely look towards the goaltenders again this season, using their strong play to spark the rest of the lineup.

Players to Watch

Anthony Beauvillier

Beauvillier has had a fairly modest career thus far. While his point totals don’t seem very encouraging, he managed 21 goals during the 2017-18 season and 18 more last year. He has shown a great ability to score at the top level. With great potential seemingly oozing out of every shift he takes. He’s a powder keg waiting to burst and there’s a general sense that said burst is coming sooner rather than later. The Islanders are likely to slot Beauvillier among the top-six next season, giving him every chance to play among the team’s best playmakers. With the increased minutes will surely come a newfound prowess for Beauvillier.

Thomas Greiss

As previously mentioned, there’s no doubt that Greiss will finally get the starting role he deserves this season. He has a storied career of off-and-on play, which makes the increased minutes a little risky. During the 2017-18 season, Greiss was particularly terrible, recording a career-low .892 save percentage and a career-high 3.82 goals-against-average. These numbers came in only 21 games played, though, bringing in the issue of small sample size. As well as the fact that he was playing behind one of the worst defensive teams the league had seen in a while.

In fact, Greiss has two seasons of over 40 games played under his belt. In both of them, he set a save percentage of .925 or higher, and a goals-against-average of 2.36 or lower. Aside from these two years, Greiss has one other year with a save percentage of .920 or higher. He’s shown he can handle hefty responsibility and will be the go-to man for the Islanders next year. If he continues the tremendous play he demonstrated last year, a Vezina nomination of his own could become a real possibility.

2019-20 New York Islanders Season Prediction

The Islanders will have all eyes on them next season, as fans around the league watch to see if their tremendous 2018-19 season was just a one-hit-wonder. Where we stand right now, there’s no way of guessing whether it was or wasn’t. The Islanders did very little to upgrade what was a poor offence last season, save for upgrading their bottom-six through replacing Valtteri Filppula with Brassard.

Yet, there’s no doubting that a large part of the Islanders success last season was thanks to Lehner. Losing him, in favour of Varlamov, could pose an issue for the Islanders. While Greiss has great potential in large sample sizes, it’s still always a risk to rest your campaign on the shoulders of an unproven starter.

Backed by a lineup that has great potential to boom-or-bust, and the Islanders season could easily go one-of-two ways. They’ll either continue the defensive prowess they boasted last season, and easily make the playoffs, or fall victim to a drastically improved Eastern Conference and lose grip on what made them so strong last year. Either way, they 2019-20 New York Islanders season will be a great one to watch.

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