The New York Islanders are scoring less and winning more. Their success is an anomaly—as the rest of the league is scoring at its highest rate (3.03 goals per game) since 1995–96—because they’re doing it with defense and goaltending. The Islanders are in first place in the Metropolitan Division and they have a one-point lead over the Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference. Yes, those Maple Leafs with John Tavares.
Heading into the All-Star break, the Islanders are one of the league’s hottest teams and best stories. It starts with goaltender Robin Lehner, who leads the league with a 2.02 goals against average and .931 save percentage. But, before his Vezina–worthy campaign transformed the Islanders, Lehner needed to turn himself around.
Lehner told The Athletic he suffered a full-on panic attack before the third period against the Red Wings on March 29, 2018. He was sent home, grabbed beer on the way back and drank into the night. Lehner wrote he dealt with severe depression and contemplated suicide in the months before that game, and that night he reached the precipice of his problems.
“I finally woke up my wife in the middle of the night and said the five words I never had the courage to say,” Lehner wrote. “I have to go away.”
Then a goalie for Buffalo, Lehner reached out to a rehab program and planned to go after the season ended. March 29 changed that. Lehner made the call back to the program and prepared to go to The Meadows, a treatment center in Arizona, as soon as possible. He boarded a plane, detoxed for three weeks in the treatment center and started to combat his struggles. Two weeks later, Lehner was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder—a mental illness characterized by prolonged manic episodes.
Lehner said he found happiness and faith in Arizona, where he was baptized for the first time. By then, Buffalo’s season had ended and it decided not to re-sign Lehner. He moved on, but most teams were wary of signing Lehner. Then, Lou Lamierello called and the Islanders took a chance on the 26-year-old.
The move paid off. The Islanders went from surrendering the most goals against per game (3.57) in 2017–18 to allowing the least goals against per game (2.41) heading into the All-Star break. Lehner has prevented 22 more goals than the average goalkeeper, according to IcyData. Lehner’s arrival followed Tavares’s departure, and came when the Islanders were undergoing a franchise-wide change.
Organizational decline by way of self-attrition is painful. Tumultuous ownership has left the Islanders without one arena to call home this season. Poor front office management has resulted in one playoff series victory since 1992–93. And skimpy spending had rendered Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski as the two biggest free-agent signings during Tavares’s tenure. Garth Snow’s reign as general manager became a lesson in mediocrity.
The Islanders realized this, but they only acted when the prospect of Tavares leaving inched closer to reality. They hired longtime executive Lamoriello in May, who promptly fired Snow and head coach Doug Weight. Lamoriello brought in Barry Trotz, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory with the Capitals, and their combined four rings signaled a shift in direction and outlook. Ownership was telling Tavares: Hey, we’re trying.
But Tavares did leave. Feelings of betrayal, anger and confusion ensued. And after Tavares left, fans weren’t comforted when Lamoriello signed a batch of third- and fourth-liners. The Islanders were destined for another lottery pick with an identical-looking team bereaved of its generational talent.
That’s not what has happened. Instead, Trotz has the Islanders playing a structured defense with a cobbled-together blue line of Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield. The unit has tightened in the most threatening areas of the ice, surrendering two fewer high danger opportunities per game compared to last year. The Islanders opened the first two months of the season with a 12–9–3 record and they closed out 2018 with a resounding 4–0 win against the Maple Leafs and a 3–1 win over the Sabres.
“That era is done, and we’re trying to create a new era,” Trotz said in a press conference following the Leafs’ game. The win is part of an ongoing 19-game stretch where the Islanders have a 15–3–1 record and are outscoring their opponents by a 2:1 ratio. Players like Mat Barzal, who is contributing at a near-point-per-game pace, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Lehner are holding together that new era, for now.
The postseason might be a different story: the Islanders have an 8–10–3 record against current playoff teams. And, who doesn’t want to look ahead to a potential postseason matchup between the Leafs and Islanders? But right now, the Islanders can hold onto a team with Vezina–level goaltending and plays staunch defense. They have hope and tangible success and, with an old era behind, that’s all the Islanders need.