Six months after they were dumped by their captain, John Tavares—the man who was both their best player and the most crucial piece of their long-term plan, who had publicly assured everyone two years ago that he would not leave them for his boyhood favorite franchise—the New York Islanders are one of the hottest teams in hockey. Despite the fact that they couldn’t even make the playoffs in their last two seasons with Tavares, what remains in Brooklyn/Uniondale after his departure for Toronto has rallied around a legendary coach, a young leader, and some blisteringly hot goaltending to put themselves back into postseason contention. On Thursday night, the Isles won their fifth in a row and eighth of their last nine with an OT winner against the Blackhawks from defenseman Devon Toews, who was playing in only his fifth career NHL game.
While Toews was the unexpected hero, second-year center Mathew Barzal was the unsurprising first star. The 21-year-old fashionista won the Calder last season by leading his team in assists, but in this season, he’s truly asserted himself as the unquestioned cornerstone of the Islanders’ future. Though he struggled to find the back of the net early on this year, Barzal has been on fire recently, scoring eight times in his past nine games (including two on Thursday). Barzal is an absolutely gorgeous skater, an intuitive playmaker, and unselfish sometimes to a fault. You cannot take your eyes off him when he’s on the ice (he looks pretty good off it, too), and aside from team-best Corsi/Fenwick numbers and solid season tallies of 12 goals and 26 assists, Barzal’s natural hat trick in his team’s 4-0 revenge win against Tavares’s Maple Leafs last week cemented him as an instant Islanders legend.
Elsewhere in the skating corps, wingers Anders Lee and Josh Bailey have experienced a dip in production without Tavares in between them on the top line, but perhaps the regression could have been much worse. Replacement-by-default center Brock Nelson is proving himself an adequate fill-in who helps keep Lee afloat, while Bailey has found a new home alongside Barzal and promising youngster Anthony Beauvillier. Most dramatically, reigning Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz—who came in from Washington before Tavares signed elsewhere—deserves plenty of credit for transforming what was a league-worst defense last season into the team that has allowed the fewest goals in the NHL so far this year. Though Ryan Pulock and Nick Leddy get the most ice time on the blue line, the emergence of Scott Mayfield and Thomas Hickey as a trustworthy pairing—particularly on the penalty kill, where the Isles have made a respectable improvement from league-worst 73.2 percent to 77 percent this year—has been invaluable. (And though Hickey has missed the last several games with an injury, his replacement has been ... wait for it ... Devon Toews!)
And as with any hot NHL team, goaltending is a huge piece of the success. There’s still no clear number one so far, but in the vein of the also-surprising Calgary Flames, the Islanders have pieced together one really good goaltender out of hot streaks from Thomas Greiss (early in the season) and Robin Lehner (right now). The younger Lehner, in particular, shows some real promise to be a potential permanent solution, and after opening up about his mental health struggles back in September, his inspired play—especially against Toronto and Buffalo on this win streak—is one of the truly good stories of the season.
The 2018–19 season really could have been a hilarious tragedy of a year for the Islanders, with Barry Trotz forced to drop from winning the Cup with the Capitals to dealing with the humiliating indignities of managing a bunch of mediocre role players and sidekicks without a real home arena or an on-ice leader. (That’s what yours truly thought it would be, at least.) But instead, New York has seemingly coalesced into a solid squad that, as long as the defense holds, should remain worth watching until April. The Islanders sit in ninth place in the East this morning, but with fewer games played than the seventh-place Sabres and eighth-place Canadiens—as well as only trailing the division-leading Capitals by three points—they couldn’t have dared hope for any more. The Islanders appear to be in a great position for the future—at least until a few years from now, when Barzal becomes an unrestricted free agent and ditches them for the Blackhawks.