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Sizing up the (official!) nemeses: New York Islanders

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The Isles have been a huge thorn in the Flyers’ side this season. Will they get a chance to be one in the postseason tournament?

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Islanders
There was a lot of this happening this season.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

[Ed. note: if you’re reading this, the Flyers have advanced to the second round of the playoffs and will be facing the Islanders! Here were our initial, unedited thoughts on this team from July, back before the playoffs began. This does not touch on their victories over Florida and Washington, in which they played very well, and we’ll have more on this matchup between now and when the series starts, but for now, here’s your welcome to this series.]


We’ve been breaking down the Flyers’ potential first playoff opponents, which is every team in the playoff bracket since it could be any team in the playoff bracket, because this system is crazy. We’ve already looked at the Blue Jackets and the Rangers; today, we continue on with the bracket’s seventh seed, the New York Islanders.

New York Islanders

Their season, in 100 words: We all thought the Isles were due for a dropoff after some good fortune last season, and then they ... started the year by reaching back into their old bag of tricks, reeling off a 15-0-2 streak that lasted till around Thanksgiving. They’ve since been destructively chipping away at that cushion they created for themselves, and were on a seven-game skid when the season stopped. Their on-ice numbers — generally poor in 2018-19 — actually looked OK this time around, but a dropoff in net, a few unfortunate injuries, and a somewhat pedestrian lineup had them on the playoff bubble.

Team-Level Numbers

Team Performance: New York Islanders

Measure Full Season Since All-Star Break
Measure Full Season Since All-Star Break
Games 68 19
Points Percentage 58.80% 44.70%
Total Goal Differential (Non-SO) -1 -11
Goals For % (5-on-5) 48.65% 41.56%
On-Ice xG For per 60 2.38 2.34
On-Ice xG Against per 60 2.39 2.36
On-Ice xG % (5-on-5)* 49.85% 49.30%
PDO (5-on-5) 100.22 97.64
Power Play Goals / xG For per 60 5.9 / 6.8 4.5 / 7.27
Penalty Kill Goals / xG Against per 60 6.57 / 6.7 5.22 / 7.32

* 5-on-5 xG numbers are score/venue-adjusted. All statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com.

Projected lineup (courtesy of Daily Faceoff):

Anders Lee - Mathew Barzal - Jordan Eberle

Anthony Beauvillier - Brock Nelson - Josh Bailey

Derick Brassard - Jean-Gabriel Pageau - Tom Kuhnhackl

Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Cal Clutterbuck

Nick Leddy - Johnny Boychuk

Devon Toews - Scott Mayfield

Adam Pelech - Ryan Pulock

Semyon Varlamov

Thomas Greiss

Full Phase 3 roster can be found here.

Three big questions:

  1. How much are they going to need their goalies this time around? Goaltending helped lift the Islanders up last season as Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner were both outstanding, but it became something of a question coming into the season after the Islanders lost Lehner to Chicago and picked up Semyon Varlamov last offseason. A couple of months into this season, that gamble looked like it was paying off for them; the Isles were fourth in the league in team save percentage (via Natural Stat Trick) at the end of November. Since that admittedly arbitrary point, the goaltending has fallen out a bit from under them — it hasn’t been catastrophic or anything, but they’re 19th in team save percentage since December began. Barry Trotz is a hell of a coach and we’ve seen from his time in New York that he’s going to get the most out of him, but is this team able to win anything of significance without, say, top-third-of-the-league goaltending? At least? Varlamov and Greiss are both capable of high performance, but neither is close to a sure thing. (Goalie phenom Ilya Sorokin is on his way and will likely be on the Isles next season, but he’s not eligible to play in the upcoming tournament.)
  2. Can their center depth hold up the rest of the forward lineup? Mat Barzal may not quite be the total world-beater he looked like in his Calder season, but he’s a legitimate top center who’s shown he can hold his own against most anyone, and he’s got two good wingers by his side in Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle. Brock Nelson’s a good option at second-line center, and even if the price they paid at the trade deadline for Jean-Gabriel Pageau was a little rich for my blood, if he’s your third-line center you’re in a pretty good spot. After that ... there’s not much? Anthony Beauvillier took a bit of a step forward this year, and he’ll help matters, but the bottom of this forward lineup is rough. Derick Brassard hasn’t been bad — I was floored to see that he, in the year 2020, is hovering around a half-point per game — but he still should probably not be on the third line of a team that fancies itself a contender in the year 2020, and Tom Kuhnhackl definitely should not be. Also, the Isles still have The Best Fourth Line In The League in Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck. (It is not the best fourth line in the league.) Basically if the Isles are getting a push from their forward group this summer, it’s probably going to be at the top and down the middle.
  3. What’s their defense going to look like? Adam Pelech and Johnny Boychuk both appear to be back and ready to go following scary injuries they suffered in the regular season. Boychuk and Nick Leddy have been staples in that Isles defense for over half a decade now, but they are both on the wrong side of the aging curve, and if they’re really the team’s top pairing in the playoffs, the Isles may not be setting themselves up to succeed. They have had some successes from younger blueliners this year: Pelech was having a good season before his achilles tear, Devon Toews has been a revelation, Ryan Pulock has slowly but surely come around as a legitimate piece, and even 20-year old Noah Dobson has been fine as a rookie. How the Isles balance the youth and experience on their back-end will be interesting to watch.

How they fared against the Flyers this year: Infuriatingly well! The Isles swept all three of their contests with the Flyers this season, and they all sucked in very different ways. There was an ass-whuppin’ in late October that was maybe the Flyers’ worst defensive effort of the entire season, a shootout win in November wherein the Flyers blew a 3-0 lead in the third period, and a gut punch of a game in February when the Flyers fought back and tied the game with under two minutes left, only to immediately cough up that lead in the final minute on a long shot from the point. On paper, the Flyers should not be losing to this team three times out of three, but it’s been tough sledding for them against the Isles ever since Trotz arrived, and there’d be some concern if that was who they drew following the play-in round.

First-round opponent: The Panthers, who are very boring. A different kind of boring, and one whose style is an interesting counterpart to this Islanders team’s. But this is the least interesting series of the East’s first-round bracket. A good coaching matchup, admittedly. A Panthers win probably requires Sergei Bobrovsky pulling his head out of the ass it was stored in for most of the season and playing at at least a competent level, and the Panthers’ top talent getting the better of the Isles’. If neither of those things emphatically happen, I would lean towards the Isles as the favorites.

Are they a threat? Well, they’ve been defying expectations for most of two seasons now, so for me to simply say “no” would probably not be adequate. We’ve barely touched on coaching, but it’s hard to overstate how important Barry Trotz has been to this team, and he’s going to get about as much out of this group on the ice as any coach can. But there are a lot of tough choices to be made with that lineup, particularly on defense, and he’s going to have to thread that needle very carefully. And even if he does, it’s not clear that this team has the horses to really hang with the top of the East over an extended period of time. We’ve seen them impress before when people thought they wouldn’t, but short of another hot run of goaltending, it’d be surprising to see them make it much further than the quarterfinals. (Or whatever the hell it is they’re calling the round after the play-in round.)

You can read more about them at: Lighthouse Hockey, a very entertaining website about nihilism that also dabbles in New York Islanders hockey. They’re just like us!