New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello did not make many moves this summer. While acquiring Alexander Romanov was his only player acquisition, the firing of future Hall of Fame head coach Barry Trotz was Lamoriello’s most significant offseason move.
Lou Lamoriello preached that a new voice was needed after a 2021-22 season, which saw the New York Islanders miss the postseason after going 37-35-10. All the blame for the failed season could not be put on Trotz, but at the same time, while the players struggled, Trotz struggled too.
With Trotz out the door, Lamoriello believed elevating Lane Lambert from associate head coach to head coach was precisely what this Islanders team needed.
As we sit here on Dec. 21, the Islanders under Lambert currently find themselves holding down the second wild-card spot in the East with an 18-13-2 record (38 points). Although it hasn’t been completely smooth sailing, the Islanders are in a much better situation than they were a year ago.
Before Monday’s contest against the Colorado Avalanche, Lamoriello addressed the media and was asked if Lambert’s systematic changes have benefited his team.
“Ah, well, there’s no question. In other words, all the questions about the offense, I think, had been answered,” Lamoriello said. “I think that whenever you do that, there is a little sacrifice defensively. And I think that what we’re acquiring right now is a combination of both. So very pleased with the status of where we’re at right now.”
The Growth in Offense
In the nightmarish 2021-22 campaign, the New York Islanders averaged just 2.79 goals per game which ranked toward the bottom of the NHL. But this season, through 33 games, the Islanders have scored 114 goals (16th) and have averaged 3.15 goals per game (16th).
What Lambert did that Trotz didn’t is that he has allowed his forwards to play more freely.
What we have seen this season under Lambert is that forwards aren’t evading the offensive zone immediately after the opposition gets control of the puck. Forwards are staying hard on the forecheck, hugging the boards, and standing tall at the opponent’s blue line.
That style has its positives and negatives, but in today’s NHL, being ultra-aggressive like that is one of the few ways to slow down the fast teams.
For example, early against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday (without speedster Nathan Mackinnon), the Islanders limited their ability to transition because of their forecheck.
Lambert’s freedom has allowed Mathew Barzal to flourish offensively. Yes, the goals may not be coming at the rate the Islanders would like, with just four in 33 games. But Barzal is towards the top of the NHL leaderboard in assists with 27.
Brock Nelson, known for his goal-scoring, which he had done this season leading the Islanders with 15, has had more freedom to make plays this season. He is second on the Islanders with 18 assists, and he is on pace to shatter his career-high in that category (28), with a projected 44 come season’s end.
Defenseman Ryan Pulock weighed in on the offensive changes.
“I think there’s just a lot more freedom for guys to get involved in the offensive zone,” Pulock said. “We’re keeping a few more pucks alive that’s leading to scoring chances, and then guys are doing a pretty good shot job of using us and the defenseman getting their shot and good traffic, good screens, and the pucks are kind of going in.”
One significant difference, the most significant difference of them all, has been the activation of the defensemen. Rather than hanging back, the Islanders’ backend has not only been key in transitioning this season, leading to more offense, but they have also produced offensively.
Last season, the Islanders got 32 goals from defensemen in 82 games. This season, 23 goals from defensemen in 33 games.
Noah Dobson, who led the Islanders with 13 goals a season ago, has 10 this season to lead the backend.
Besides newcomer Alex Romanov, every defense member has potted a goal, with 49 total points from defensemen.
Learning Curve on Defense
As Lamoriello mentioned, the focus on offensive production has led to a little bit of a hit on the defensive side of the puck to what the Islanders’ standards have been, defensively, over the last few seasons.
But despite the struggles to be one of the more lockdown defensive teams in the NHL like we had seen, the Islanders have still been a top-10 defense this season.
The Islanders have allowed the 10th fewest goals in the NHL, at 90, allowing 2.73 goals per game (ninth-best). Last season, the Islanders allowed 2.82 goals per game.
From a forward perspective, Parise explained the differences between last year and this year in terms of defense.
“I think the philosophy is a little more of ‘let’s kill the play defensively. Let’s kill the play in the neutral zone or keep the puck in the offensive zone’ as opposed to retreating and making sure we’ve always got five guys above,” forward Zach Parise said.
Pulock weighed in.
“I think there’s a little more aggressive and pinching offensively than we had in the past, which is a little bit of an adjustment,” Pulock said. “I think, like, if you look at it defensively and maybe in the neutral zone like through the years, you make little adjustments here and there.”
The Islanders have had to tread water defensively, especially with Adam Pelech out injured, but have needed strong, clutch goaltending the entire season to be where they are in the standings.
As the Islanders try to balance their offensive and defensive play, they find themselves in a better spot to overcome their issues right now than they did a season ago, especially with how the call-ups in Hudson Fasching and Simon Holmstrom have played.
The question is will Lamoriello provide Lambert with pieces to help strengthen this New York Islanders roster and get this team playing a more consistent brand of hockey?