Compare the New York Islanders now to where they were three years ago and here might not be many people in the NHL who could’ve thought such a quick turnaround could have happened.
Since 1994, the Islanders had been a bottom-dwelling afterthought with an occasional, quick trip to the playoffs. That included two straight playoff-less seasons from 2016-2018 where they were one of the worst defensive teams in hockey.
But the decision to clean house following the 2017-18 campaign altered the course of the franchise with president and GM Lou Lamoriello, along with head coach Barry Trotz, revamping the organization and making them a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. All while losing franchise cornerstone John Tavares in free agency the very same summer as the duo’s arrival, prompting much of the hockey world to pick the Islanders to finish near the bottom of the East.
The thing is, the Islanders have made the playoffs for three straight years — the first time since 2002-2004 — including a trip to the Eastern Conference Final last year and are now giving the favored Bruins a run for their money in a second-round series that is tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5 in Boston on Monday night.
So how did they pull off the unthinkable and make the Islanders relevant again?
“It’s identifying the people that buy-in. It starts with your leader,” Trotz said on Sunday. “Probably one of the most important decisions we had to make is when John Tavares left to go to Toronto, it was who was going to be the next captain? We had to get that right, and I think we did with [captain] Anders Lee and guys like [alternate captain] Josh Bailey. I didn’t really know any of these guys. We had to get that right.”
Lee showed an Islanders fan base what loyalty looked like from a captain, helping to instill the team-first mantra that fuels a team that doesn’t have the same kind of firepower as some of the top teams in the league — but makes up for it with organization and a blue-collar work ethic of everyone pulling their weight.
“First talking with those guys and talking to every player, asking them a number of different questions, and then making a decision for a number of reasons going back,” he continued. “Everything to their voices in the room, respect in the room, to how they play… It was identifying who was going to carry the message forward and starting with the mission of correcting one or two things.”
It’s what has allowed the Islanders to continue finding success in the playoffs despite Lee going down with a season-ending Achilles injury back in January — especially when it comes to the defensive revolution that has overtaken the franchise.
In the final year of the Garth Snow and Doug Weight era, the Islanders allowed an NHL-worst 293 goals. With a largely unchanged blue line, the Islanders had the best defense in the league in Trotz’s first year behind the bench, allowing 102 fewer goals.
“My first priority coming here was they were not very good defensively,” Trotz said. “To correct that and give them a chance to win when losing a player of John Tavares’ value, I guess, that was going to be a big hole. Plus changing the mindset a little bit. You had to pick the right leaders and everything else will follow.
“To me, once you get good leaders, they are an extension of a coaching staff. I think we got some good leaders. That’s where it starts. Then it’s a gradual thing. You have to work at it, you have to have success, you have to get to the playoffs, and you have to get success in the playoffs and we’ve been able to do a little bit of that.”