NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The Islanders did a whole lot of nothing prior to the trade deadline, but general manager Lou Lamoriello says he’s not concerned.
His team has been arguably the biggest surprise story in the NHL this season, sitting atop the Metropolitan Division despite losing franchise center John Tavares in free agency last summer and not adding a single marquee piece to make up for the offense that left with him.
The Isles have won with coaching, namely Barry Trotz, who has worked miracles behind the bench since leaving the Washington Capitals following their first Stanley Cup championship last season. Lamoriello’s moves during the offseason, which were universally panned by hockey insiders and fans alike, have proven to be smart decisions as the team’s culture has changed and it has improved dramatically in troubling areas, like goaltending and overall team defense.
“To be perfectly honest and frank, I don’t think anybody standing here could have put on a piece of paper that we’d be standing here at the trade deadline in a position that we are in the league,” Lamoriello said Monday, just minutes after the deadline passed. “The play of the team throughout the year determines what your actions are at this time of the year.”
The Islanders (36-18-7) sit two points ahead of Washington atop the division and seven points clear of Pittsburgh for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. As mentioned before, the goaltending has been tremendous. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss enter play Tuesday with 2.07 and 2.26 goals-against averages, first and tied for third, respectively, in the league. Their save percentages — .931 and .928 — are first and third, respectively.
The team’s defensive structure has been like night and day compared to last season, when the Isles allowed a league-high 296 goals. New York is currently the stingiest team in the NHL, allowing just 146, or 13 fewer than the next closest team.
The question that will follow the Isles around for the rest of the season, and, presumably, during what they hope will be long postseason run, will revolve around their offense. New York is currently 24th in the league in goals for (175) and its power play is also 24th, at a less-than-pedestrian 16.9 percent.
What’s more, the Islanders really don’t have a top line. Center Mathew Barzal is experiencing a bit of what Tavares had to deal with throughout his nine-year tenure with the club, a revolving door of wingers. Barzal, who had 85 points last season, one more than Tavares for the team lead, on his way to winning the Calder Trophy, leads the team in scoring with just 51 points in 61 games. He is tied for 67th in the league overall.
The Islanders’ leading goal scorer, Anders Lee with 21, is tied for 57th.
Yet Lamoriello said he ultimately didn’t want to upset the team’s chemistry with a splash at the deadline, though it was widely reported that the Isles were believed to be in on several of the top players who were moved, including center Matt Duchene (traded by Ottawa to Columbus) and winger Mark Stone (Ottawa to Vegas).
“We went into this trade deadline with several areas that if potentially we could address, we would,” Lamoriello said. “But we weren’t going to get into a situation where we sacrificed what our plan is, because we feel very good about this hockey team.”
The three-time Stanley Cup-winning GM expanded on what exactly the “plan” is.
“You always have to think of the future and the present, and we’re in a ‘foundation situation’ of an organization,” Lamoriello said. “We’re trying to get ourselves in a span of winning over a number of years. And I’d like to think that’s the position we’re in right now and that’s what we’re trying to build.”
While it remains to be seen if the Isles have enough to win their first division title in 31 years and then make some noise in the playoffs, they have many decisions to make going forward and there’s a very good chance this team will look a lot different next season regardless. In addition to not being buyers at the deadline, they were also not sellers. New York has several key free agents that could potentially walk this offseason, including captain Lee, second-line center Brock Nelson and top-six winger Jordan Eberle.
The good news is the Islanders are projected to have a ton of salary cap space.
“It’s our responsibility to try to get our free agents signed, who we feel very good about,” Lamoriello said. “This is certainly an indication of what we think of them and what we think of our own team. But we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
No kidding. The Islanders start a homestand Tuesday that will feature games against three of the top teams in the NHL — Calgary on Tuesday, Tavares-led Toronto on Thursday and defending champion Washington on Friday.