Patrick Roy is chipping away at some of the institutions that made the New York Islanders a defense-first team — but also made the brand of hockey they put forth bland and unsustainable with the roster they currently have.
Lane Lambert was unable to upkeep Barry Trotz’s system in his two years at the helm of the Islanders. A team whose defense was the backbone of two consecutive Stanley Cup semifinal appearances sagged last year before becoming a liability in 2023-24. Defenders were afraid to leave the net front while clears were at times too safe and predictable — allowing the opposition to stack up the boards or put the right amount of pressure to coax innumerous turnovers. It’s a key factor as to why the Islanders have yielded the second-most shots in the NHL this season while having the 10th-worst goals-allowed-per-game mark.
Lambert was shown the door and now, Roy is taking the shackles off.
Creativity is now being encouraged, allowing players to express themselves through their play more on the ice. A free-flowing game eliminates some of the uncertainties that come with a rigid system that ultimately stifles an offense.
“He allows you to have that freedom, especially in the offensive zone,” star center Bo Horvat told amNewYork. “I find that the defense can be a little bit more aggressive with the play a little bit more, which has been great for us forwards to keep the puck in and to sustain a little bit of zone pressure.”
Defenders are now encouraged to get up and join the play to create gaps in transitional play or be aggressive in the offensive zone by pinching in to keep the Islanders on the attacking front foot. Skilled forwards will get the green light to dip into their bag of tricks more often to generate openings and with it, scoring chances.
This is all contingent, however, on the players making sure they hustle back on defense when necessary.
“Do you know what that does? It shows them that we’re working extremely hard on coming back together as a unit,” Roy said. “So what that does is they’re getting used to working as a team. It’s the same thing offensively. If I have the puck and I throw it in the pocket, take a shot, only two guys are working on this.
“But now, if we start to go low to high, we go over, the five guys on the ice are saying, ‘Oh, maybe I might have the puck at some point, so I have to be sharp. I have to be in the proper position so I need to make myself available.’ So we stop being puck watchers.”
Roy is also ensuring this aggressive mindset stays in the defensive zone. It appears that the days of the Islanders sitting back and absorbing pressure in their zone, which puts a heavy burden on their goaltending tandem, are gone.
“We want a structure that is aggressive and pressing the puck carrier so now the guys know that we can’t be flat-footed and watching what’s going on in our zone,” Roy said. “That’s what’s behind this.”
The early returns have been promising. New York overcame a 2-1 deficit in Roy’s debut on Sunday to defeat one of the Western Conference’s best sides, the Dallas Stars, 3-2 in overtime. They responded by controlling large portions of Tuesday night’s game against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Vegas Golden Knights, outshooting them 42-27 in a 3-2 loss while showing more fluidity in their zone exits and establishing more time in the offensive zone.
“I’m excited to have different looks and be a little more aggressive at times coming down the walls and heading up the ice,” defenseman Noah Dobson, who has 48 points in 47 games this season, said. “I think that would be beneficial. You give other teams different looks which can surprise them at times, as well. You always have to be trying to change and I’m excited for them.”