It was a long build up to the franchise-record 17-game points streak, though from the outside it still might not make all that much sense.
When the New York Islanders started to change ownership in 2014, and former Harvard roommates Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin took full control of the franchise by 2016, it seemed like the team’s lost identity was on the verge of being reclaimed, restored and revived.
It was an exciting time to be an Islanders fan, even in the wake of years of rumors the team would uproot and relocate to Kansas City or Quebec City. The idea of the team leaving Long Island was as unimaginable to fans, at the time, as what happened on July 1, 2018, the day NHL free agency opened and captain John Tavares left for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But thankfully, it was merely the latter that happened and not the former.
Fans heard the noise from critics and outsiders alike: the team could not be successful on Long Island, crowds are far too low; no elite player will come via free agency, it is not the best place to live and New York City is right there, anyway; the stadium is decrepit and the facilities are unsuitable for professional hockey players in the modern league. They go on, and get worse. And after Tavares finally left that place for a real hockey team, the league discounted the washed up team’s chances for good.
Now, about two months into the 2019 season, the team sits atop the NHL’s power rankings according to nbcsports.com and cbssports.com. The team owns the second best home record in the NHL; They have not lost to an Atlantic Conference team (7-0-0); They refuse to lose close games (9-1-2 in games decided by one goal or less).
So how did this happen? I could not help but look to a cross-sport complement, the New York Mets, to realize how the Islanders were able to turn things around. Watching the repeating failings of the Wilpons, and seeing the impact it has had on the team each season, the mirror, the light, whatever you want it to be, was held up and magnified front and center. The culture of a sports team matters and it starts at the very top.
The valiant ownership pair brought with them, in addition to three-time Stanley Cup winning general manager Lou Lamoriello and Stanley Cup winning head coach Barry Trotz, a new sense of life and a gripping energy to the fanbase. They drilled in belief about their dedication to the Islanders and fanbase on Long Island by riding the train to the game on the LIRR, working to move as many games from the Barclay’s Center to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and ultimately breaking ground for the team’s new stadium in Belmont on September 23.
“The Islanders are more than a hockey team. They were a Long Island identity,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to the New York Times. “They said to Long Island, ‘You are special, you have your own team.’ There’s no place like the Islanders playing on Long Island, period.”
The Malkin-Ledecky ownership group brought in a pair with a commitment to a distinct philosophy; one that embraces the team over the individual and hard work. One that believes “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The identity fits on Long Island and always has.
Trotz drills into his players the mindset he wants them to maintain on each shift. Teams that win games regularly find ways to make it hard for their opponents to face them for the full game, not just for fleeting moments in a given period.
Veterans brought in by Lamoriello before last season kicked off, such as Valtteri Filppula and Matt Martin, added to the locker room and immediately embraced Trotz’s culture. They set an example for the younger players, but did not add to the scoresheet on a regular basis. Though for Martin, that is not really is job, anyway.
This year, 32-year-old right winger Derick Brassard has added the kind of spark Trotz appears to value as an absolute necessity. Brassard, aside from elevating the play of line mates left winger Anthony Beauvillier and center Brock Nelson (NHL Third Star of the Week for the week ending November 24) has posted six goals and 10 assists in 22 games. The former first round pick posted 23 points in 70 games with three teams last year, ending with a horrific 20-game stretch (four goals, no assists) with the Colorado Avalanche, and failed to find any form of consistency resembling his former self. But this year, he has turned it all around under Trotz. From the outside, it looks like he was willing to buy in
“You just understand there’s a certain price you have to pay to win every game,” Trotz said to Arthur Staple of The Athletic. “We’ve been paying the price for a long time and we deserved a lot of the points we’ve gotten. Tonight we didn’t pay enough for that, the fee to win a hockey game, and they (the Ducks) paid a little bit more so they deserved to win.”
In the 1980s, the New York Islanders won (a lot of) hockey games because their opponent was usually scared to play them for a number of reasons. The team that Bill Torrey built and Al Arbour guided played with a distinct physicality and brought plenty of skill. On top of that, they were backed by the blue-collar crowd in the intimate Old Barn in Uniondale, Long Island, New York. It might not sound quite as appealing as the shiny Brooklyn experiment to some hockey outsiders, but it is in tune with what it takes to win a game in this sport even in this era of the league.
In year two under the triumvirate of Malkin-Ledecky, Lamoniello and Trotz, the same group of players from last year (more or less) have bought in and the results continue to show each night. Add that up and you are looking back at a franchise record 17-game point streak—and a thrilling one to say the least. The streak’s peak, of course, came during the two-game stretch against the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins on November 16 and November 19, respectively, in which the team battled back from a multi-goal deficit in the third period to win back to back games.
The team’s leading scorer, center Matt Barzal, is 46th in points in the NHL. That is revealing. And the very same player who leads the scoring leads the entire NHL in takeaways (28).
The Islanders’ streak—stretching from October 12 to this past Monday, November 25—was snapped by the Anaheim Ducks when the team dropped a 3-0 contest and failed to play their style of hockey.
But tomorrow, they are back at it to close out the three-game California road trip against the Los Angeles Kings at 10:30 p.m. EST. Trotz might even be a little relieved that the distraction a point streak of that magnitude can bring into a locker room is over; now, it is back to work.
During the 45-day tear, the Islanders’ high quality play and consistency throughout lines demonstrated what statistics and data analytics projecting them to be a middle-tier team early in the season cannot calculate. Fans—and I have a strong feeling the players might have glimpsed this, too—saw more than a fragment of the light at the end of the tunnel.