The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 80-1
Key Additions: Robin Lehner, G; Valtteri Filppula, C; Jan Kovar, C; Leo Komarov, LW; Tom Kuhnhackl, RW; Matt Martin, LW; Yannick Rathgreb, D
Key Departures: John Tavares, C; Calvin de Haan, D; Jaroslav Halak, G; Chris Wagner, C; Nikolay Kulemin, LW; Dennis Seidenberg, D; Brandon Davidson, D; Alan Quine, C
Center Mathew Barzal is coming off a Calder Trophy-winning season that saw the playmaking visionary record five points in a game three different times, tying a 100-year-old NHL record set by Joe Malone. With John Tavares gone, Barzal becomes the go-to guy in New York’s offense, which means more time with right winger Jordan Eberle and potentially an upgrade on the left side – say, 40-goal scorer Anders Lee, for example. With support players Anthony Beauvillier and Brock Nelson, New York manages to maintain equilibrium in the wake of Tavares’ exit.
On defense, Ryan Pulock and Sebastian Aho inject youth and offense into the unit, which has experience in Stanley Cup winners Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. In net, Robin Lehner gets what is likely his final chance to prove he can be an NHL starter, coming over from Buffalo. Lehner is only one season removed from a .920 save percentage, and the fiery Swede has ideal size for his position. With all that and a newly minted Cup-winning coach in Barry Trotz (not to mention culture-driving GM Lou Lamoriello), the Isles could surprise the Metropolitan Division with their scrappiness and nab a wild-card spot.
Any and all semblance of order walked out the door with Tavares, the erstwhile captain who also happened to be the franchise’s most complete player since the dynasty years. With Tavares gone, teams will key in on Barzal and nullify the youngster’s productivity, which will already be tested since the dreaded sophomore slump is a very real possibility.
In terms of talent, the Isles have one of the weakest depth charts in the East, and how those pieces fall into place without Tavares is terrifying to contemplate. The goaltending in particular could be atrocious, as Lehner wasn’t promising enough for the woeful Sabres to keep around. Thomas Greiss is good backup but nothing more.
Trotz was a great add for the bench, but he’s coming off the heady fumes of a Cup run after decades of coaching. There is always talk about a hangover for players, but what about bench bosses? Lamoriello’s initial moves as GM were less than impressive, as he brought in two of Toronto’s worst players – Leo Komarov and Matt Martin. The Isles might be tough to play against, but will opponents care if they still walk out of whichever arena New York is playing in that night with a victory?
Is Barzal bound for a sophomore slump or an excellent encore?
Barzal didn’t just smash expectations last season, he did his best Bugs Bunny impersonation, strapped an ACME-sized load of TNT to his perceived rookie limitations and blew them to smithereens. In The Hockey News’ 2017-18 Pool Guide, Barzal was projected to score 46 points. His actual output was nearly double, as he netted 22 goals and 85 points en route to the highest scoring rookie season since some guy named Evgeni Malkin had an 85-point campaign in his debut NHL campaign.
The million-dollar question, though, is whether Barzal will be capable of continuing to dazzle on offense and stuff the scoresheet without Tavares shielding him from the toughest competition on a nightly basis. On the power play, Barzal’s deft passing ability and vision will ensure that his numbers don’t suffer too much, but at even strength, he will have his mettle tested against top defensive pairing and top shutdown centers all season long. It will provide valuable experience, to be sure, but each lesson Barzal learns will likely be some growing pain. That may mean he’s a better, more complete and more dominant player in a few seasons’ time, but it also could very well come with a slight decrease in his overall point total.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 8th in the Metropolitan Division. Trotz is going to help transform the Islanders defensively, but success will be limited by the lack of depth. And if Lehner isn’t the answer in goal that New York sorely needs, no amount of offense is going to see the Islanders outrun their issues.
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