Honestly, how many of us had predicted the New-York Islanders would be tied for second in the Metropolitan division at the end of the 2014-2015 season? They were a huge surprise this season due to many factors.
The top gun:
John Tavares is without a doubt the best player on the Islanders’ roster. He can do it all, score clutch goals, lead the team to victories, play a decent two-way game and the bigger the stage, the better he is. With 86 points this season, Tavares helped his team forge a playoff spot for the first time since the 2012-2013 season. Tavares came into the season with a purpose, and it showed. He had 12 points in his first 10 games and Tavares was leading by example. The Islanders were 6-4 in that span, which came to a surprise to some hockey fans. Most people thought the Isles were a fluke, that they would eventually collapse. Yet that was not the case, they kept clawing their way up the standings and never looked back.
Many Islanders players had career seasons. Brock Nelson doubled his career high in points, notching 42 points and 20 goals in a full 82 game season. Ryan Strome had an outstanding year, with 50 points to his credit, he was a threat on the ice at all times. Rookie Anders Lee was quite the surprise, 41 points and 25 goals is a great rookie season. If it wasn’t for all rookie talent this year he definitely could have been in the Calder conversation. Many more players on the roster had career years, like Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic, Casey Cizikas, etc.
Perharps the biggest factor that contributed to the Islanders success was the stud defensive duo of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. Garth Snow was often criticized for some questionnable moves, but these were huge additions to the Islanders blue line. Boychuk, who had 35 points and a +15 this season, was arguably their best defender; he averaged around 21 minutes a game and was used during key matchups (Mainly against Alex Ovechkin during the first round of the playoffs). Nick Leddy was no slouch either, he had a career-high 10 goals and tied his best season with 37 points. He logged around 20 minutes a game and was definitely a contributor in the Islanders fantastic season. Boychuk and Leddy were used as 5th and 6th defenseman on their old teams, hidden behind big names like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Zdeno Chara, etc. People now know their worth after Boychuk signed a 7-year contract worth $42 million and Leddy signed a 7-year deal worth $38.5 million.
Between the pipes:
Jaroslav Halak was another huge signing. On May 1st 2014, the Islanders acquired the rights to Jaroslav Halak and he was selected to become the starting goaltender over veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov. After being dealt from Montreal to St. Louis and then to Washington, Halak finally found his game in New-York. His 2.43 GAA and 0.914 save percentage were enough to give the Islanders consistent goaltending and stability on the back end, as well as make Halak a top 10 goalie in the NHL. During the first round of the playoffs, the Islanders faced the Washington Capitals, a tough team lead by Alexander Ovechkin. The series went to 7 games, at that point Halak was 4-0 with a 0.977 save percentage when facing elimination against the Capitals. He was also 2-0 in game 7’s with a 1.50 GAA and a 0.963 save percentage. Those are outstanding numbers and it is needless to be said that Halak deserved a better fate. However, the Islanders should be able to make it into the playoffs for the next couple of seasons if they can keep getting consistent goaltending from Halak.
Honestly, is there a better fourth line in the NHL other than the one of the New-York Islanders ? Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas are a threat on the ice, not because of their knack for scoring, but because of their outstanding physical play. Martin and Clutterbuck were respectively #1 and #2 in the hitting category, they combined for 725 hits and 174 penalty minutes during the regular season. Some people may say they are just goons who are looking to injure, but this line would average around 12 minutes a game, which is very impressive for a fourth line. Hitting is an important part of hockey, and these guys are able to use it to their advantage by striking fear into their opponents heart when they dump that puck in the zone. Come playoff time, this is a very key line for the Islanders to have if they want to avoid getting out muscled. Also, the Islanders led the NHL in hitting (2,685 hits in 82 games, which is a 32.7 hits per game average, via Sporting Charts).
I believe if the Islanders had a healthy blue line in the playoffs, they would have had better chances at making it past the first round. Keep your heads up Isles fans.
Brandon Murphy – @2murphy8