The 2019-20 season is just around the corner and, once again, the Islanders are being picked outside of the playoff picture. Last season, the team was able to prove all doubters wrong, making the playoffs and even sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. This year, New York looks mostly similar with one glaring change. Will this team be able to get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Hockey relies a lot on coaching. In a sport where the best players only play about a third of the game, it’s important to have a coach who can create a system for all four lines and three defensive pairs and implement it for success. Barry Trotz is that coach.
He took on the insane challenge of reeling in a seemingly systemless Doug-Weight-led team and he succeeded. The defensive structure was team-wide, as every skater became more responsible in the defensive zone. As a result, the Islanders gave up 100 fewer goals in 2018-19 than in 2017-18. They did reduce their offensive output by 23 tallies, but that should improve this year because the team has the defensive structure already under their belt so they can work on turning that defense into offense.
This offseason, the Islanders lost two key contributors to free agency. Valtteri Filppula was the third-line center and played the role well. He saw significant penalty-kill minutes while contributing his fair share of offense with 17 goals and 31 points. Big, smooth-skating Otto Koivula, former Islanders fourth-round pick who notched 46 points in Bridgeport last season, was a possible choice to replace him. However, the Islanders changed that narrative when they signed Derick Brassard (one-year, $1.2 million) on Aug. 21.
Brassard, 32 on Sept. 22, had a difficult 2018-19, scoring 23 points with 14 goals between three teams. Brassard is, however, a former 60 point-getter with the Rangers. While I don’t think he’ll reach that ceiling in 2019-20, I think his offensive output will be better than last year. Most importantly, Brassard can be a key piece in fixing the Isles biggest weakness from last season, the power-play.
The Islanders also lost one of the most beloved one year players of all-time in goalie Robin Lehner. By now, most people reading this know his story so I won’t go into that. On the ice, Lehner was 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA and .930 save percentage. He won the Masterton Trophy, shared the Jennings with Thomas Greiss and was a Vezina finalist. It will be a huge loss to endure, but this season, we will find out how much of the success was due to the new defensive system.
Semyon Varlamov (four-years, $20 million), a Russian goaltender who played the past eight years in Colorado after beginning his career as a member of the Capitals, will replace Lehner. Varlamov is a pretty good goaltender and should be improved behind an Islanders defense with more structure than the Avalanche.
He can be a nice compliment to Thomas Greiss and I expect a similar style of goalies splitting games in 2019-20. The biggest reason for the Varlamov signing? He has the same agent as Islanders top goaltending prospect Ilya Sorokin. Lou Lamoriello hopes that Varlamov can convince Sorokin to come to North America and even mentor him as he adjusts to his new lifestyle.
With a new defensive structure put in place, some players had down years offensively. A key piece in getting the Islanders back to the playoffs will be these players having bounce-back seasons on the offensive end.
First, Jordan Eberle. Last season, Eberle failed to reach the 20-goal mark for the first time since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, finishing with 19. However, he turned it up in the playoffs, finishing with four goals and nine points in eight playoff games. All four goals and six of nine points came in the Islanders first-round sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins. If Eberle can keep up the work he put in that series, his new, slightly cheaper contract (five-years, $27.5 million) will look amazing in the coming years.
Mat Barzal was the leading scorer for the team last year with 62 points, but he will need more to get the offense back on track. He’s certainly capable and another year of development in Trotz’s system should help.
Anthony Beauvillier is at a crossroads in his career. The former first-round pick (28th overall) took a step back last season, playing in 10 more games but notching three fewer goals and five fewer assists. Late into the summer, he was given a two-year, $4.2 million bridge deal. Beauvillier needs to step up this season or risk seeing a promising career go down the drain early on. Playing with his good friend Barzal should help him but it’s up to him to stay consistent throughout the year.
The Islanders put themselves on the map with a surprising run to the second round of the playoffs. This year, they’re still being ranked outside the playoff picture. It will take big seasons from new members and bounce back candidates for the Isles to make another run towards the Stanley Cup, but it can happen.