Since 2008, the New York Islanders have picked in the top-15 of every single NHL entry draft and were in the midst of a total rebuild. Not much was going right for the Islanders and while they were stockpiling assets, poor management decisions stunting the teams overall growth.
Fast-forward to the 14-15 season where they sit in first place in the Eastern Conference, third overall in the entire NHL in points, and are a top-five possession team controlling 53.6% of the play at even strength. It was time to stop waiting and make a move to establish themselves as a legitimate contending team over the offseason and that is exactly what they did.
The Islanders' biggest problem over the years has been the lack of a legitimate starting goalie and they took care of that pretty early when they traded for Jaroslav Halak's rights from the Washington Capitals, and then signing him to a four-year, $18 million contract. Signing Mikhail Grabovski (four years, $20 million) and Nikolai Kulemin (four years, $16.75 million) were great analytic signings who both have posted great CF% (Corsi For Percentage) in the years prior. These two signings would help plug some holes on the Isles' other lines to help for secondary scoring and two lift some of the weight off of superstars John Tavares and Kyle Okposo.
While these signings would certainly help the Islanders improve, the biggest moves were yet to come. In the weeks before the season started, the Islanders acquired Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy from the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks for draft picks and prospects in two separate deals. This not only gave them the option of a legitimate top pair on defense, but also gives them more options to give their younger prospects like Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock more time to develop in their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. After making huge deals to help improve the squad, the Islanders had big plans on being a top team in the Eastern Conference, and lets see how that’s panned out so far:
What you can tell at first glance on this graph is that John Tavares and Kyle Okposo are phenomenal together, controlling around 55% of play when on the ice together. What you can also tell is they really have yet to find a LW for that first line and have experimented with the likes of Nik Kulemin and Josh Bailey, both who have been positive possession players. They have a really good mix of good defensive forwards who also can control play at an effective level. Even though Josh Bailey is a red on the chart, he still posts above 50% and faces very tough competition and could be an option for a shutdown line. The team is also getting really good contributions from young players like Anders Lee and Ryan Strome who have both been terrific at even strength for them adding size and skill to an already deep forward team. The two big signings over the offseason have been putting up stellar possession numbers as well as adding to the offense. They have been dealing with various short term injuries to Mikhail Grabovski and Michael Grabner, which is a really positive sign that they have done this well without them at some points, because when at full health, this team is as lethal as any forward group in the whole league. The ability to roll four lines is huge for teams as it gets closer towards the postseason especially when they are all over 50% possession.
How important the additions of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk have been can't be brought up enough as they have been one of the top pairings in the NHL this season. Primarily deployed in the offensive zone, they have been unstoppable at even strength controlling an insane 59.2% possession. They also add a lot to the powerplay with Boychuk having one of the harder shots in the league. Travis Hamonic and Calvin De haan have been a terrific shutdown pair together controlling 54.9% of possession at even strength while getting a mix of offensive and defensive zone starts against the tougher spectrum of competition. Going to the third pairing is a weird situation because of a circumstance where Lubomir Visnovsky has only played 29 games this season because of a few different injuries. When Visnovsky is paired with Thomas Hickey, they add a really solid 3rd pairing option controlling 53.9% of play at even strength. When Hickey isn't paired with Visnovsky, he is used with Brian Strait on the third pairing, and it hasn't been good. They control 46.9% of play at even strength which isn't very good playing against primarily bottom six forwards. Although they do have to start most shifts in the defensive zone, they are most effective without Brian Strait in the lineup. They have quality options right now at defense when healthy, which is huge for the young players who are benefitting from not being thrown into the fire while they could spend more time developing their game.
Having used the combination of Dwayne Roloson, Rick Dipietro, Evgeni Nabakov for years prior to this, it is a sigh of relief that the Islanders have finally found their man. Jaroslav Halak has been exceptional for them this season finally adding a stabilizing presence to the net but there is a concern he could be overworked.He's already played 32 games going 24-8 with a .915 SV% and a 2.24 GAA. The other concern is that their other free agent signing Chad Johnson hasn't really found his groove as the backup netminder going 6-5 with a 3.40 GAA and a .869 SV% in his 11 games started. You typically want your starting goalie to play around 55-60 games in the season to keep him fresh for the playoffs, so the hope for the Islanders is that they can depend on Johnson for the 10 or so remaining games he has to play in the regular season. For the first time in a while, this is an area of strength but with caution because you do have to monitor how Johnson rebounds from the sub-par start.
It is a realistic thought that the Islanders will be a top seed in the playoffs and continuing the rapid pace they are winning at because all this is completely sustainable. The teams PDO( SH% plus SV%) is currently sitting a 99.31 which is a sign for that what they are playing at a rate that can be sustained. What PDO is supposed to do is tell how a team is maybe facing some bad luck or an abundance of good luck but when it is at 100, it is a sign that the it is all evened out. When above 100, it is easy to predict that the team will eventually slow down the high shooting percentage or the goalie will cool of(I.e Nashville Predators). When Below 100, it is a team that is experiencing bad goaltending or really bad luck shooting the puck (I.e Edmonton Oilers). The team doesn't have to make a trade but they have so many assets the can surely improve by going for a top line winger for the Tavares-Okposo line. It is no coincidence that for the past number of seasons this team hasn't be a relatively good puck possession team, and now that the numbers have trended upwards, this team is ready for another period of greatness. They have some terrific prospects in the pipeline that can continue to develop while they have solid options to keep the team playing at a high level. For the first time in a long time, all is well in Uniondale.