HARD HITS: Trotz has surprising Islanders in first place

A good coach can make all the difference. For years, the Islanders have been viewed by many observers as an afterthought in the metro area. Despite a rich history and tradition that includes the Stanley Cup dynasty of winning four consecutive championships between 1980-83, there hasn’t been much to talk about since.

Sure. They had some good teams afterwards featuring Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine. A franchise center who’s best remembered for his goal in the fourth overtime to beat the Capitals in ’87. Unfortunately for LaFontaine, the closest he came to glory on Long Island was his rookie year when as a teenager, he scored 13 goals and 19 points in 15 games during ’83-84. He followed that up with nine points (3-6-9) in 16 games during the playoffs when the Oilers ended the Islanders dynasty by sweeping them.

LaFontaine lasted eight seasons as a terrific number one center before being traded following a holdout on October 25, 1991. He was packaged along with Randy Wood, Randy Hillier and a ’92 fourth round pick (Dean Melanson) to the Sabres in exchange for new top center Pierre Turgeon, Uwe Krupp, Benoit Hogue and Dave McLIwain. A blockbuster deal that benefited both New York clubs. While LaFontaine went onto center Alexander Mogilny and Yuri Khmylev in Buffalo, Turgeon became a star on the Isles at Nassau Coliseum. He headlined the ’92-93 team that made a run to the Conference Finals before losing in five games to the Canadiens. Of course, Islanders fans still despise Dale Hunter for his cheap shot on Turgeon following a goal celebration that injured their best player. A good team that featured Hogue, Krupp, Ray Ferraro, Steve Thomas, Pat Flatley, Glenn Healy, Derek King, David Volek, Vladimir Malakhov and Darius Kasparaitis. The first round win over the Capitals and second round upset over the two-time champion Penguins is fondly remembered. But Montreal overtime magic led by Patrick Roy did them in as the Canadiens won the Cup over the Kings.

Soon after, their time had come and gone in the blink of an eye. The following Spring, a late run to grab the eighth seed resulted in a sweep by the hated Rangers, who made quick work of them en route to the Cup. Ironically, ’93 playoff hero Healy became a popular backup on the Broadway side of the rivalry behind Mike Richter. Turgeon was dealt to Montreal with Malakhov for Kirk Muller, Mathieu Schneider and Craig Darby on April 5, 1995. It was a PR nightmare with that Isles home game Pierre Turgeon Poster Night. Making matters worse, Muller wanted no part of Long Island. He barely played before forcing a trade to Toronto in ’96.

So much changed. The Mike Milbury Error was filled with turmoil due to cheap and untrustworthy management. Along with Milbury’s awful penchant of giving away young players with talent for vets too soon, it doomed the franchise. With ownership issues that included the John Spano headache, it only made matters worse. So much talent came and went. Notable players who went onto good careers include Todd Bertuzzi, Roberto Luongo, Zdeno Chara, Olli Jokinen, Wade Redden, Bryan Berard, Bryan McCabe, Eric Brewer, J.P. Dumont and Tim Connolly. There also was the Rick DiPietro draft mistake that led to trading Luongo and Jokinen to Florida for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish. Milbury could’ve kept Luongo, who’s a future Hall of Famer, and selected either Marian Gaborik or Dany Heatley. At least Parrish and key acquisitions Mike Peca and Alexei Yashin helped them reach the playoffs. However, they never got out of the first round. Meanwhile, Chara became one of the best defensemen and a first round pick which turned into Jason Spezza made the Senators an Eastern power.

Even following the Milbury debacle when the recently passed Charles Wang came in and saved the franchise, they still didn’t have much success. Despite landing John Tavares first overall in ’09, they only made the postseason three times, only getting out of the first round once. Tavares’ heroics carried them past the Panthers in 2016. The final two years of the Tavares Era were bitter disappointments that resulted in playoff misses along with dismissing coaches Jack Capuano and Doug Weight.

Needing a fresh start, they brought in championship proven executive Lou Lamoriello as Team President. He then fired Garth Snow and named himself GM. Then patiently waited for Barry Trotz to say good riddance to the cheap Caps following their first Cup. He was underpaid and wasn’t treated with respect for guiding Washington to its first championship.

A veteran coach with a no nonsense disciplinary style that’s similar to Lamoriello, Trotz has done a masterful job changing the script for the Islanders. A proven winner who’s had success both in Nashville and Washington, he’s taking on a different situation in Brooklyn. Following his hire, Lamoriello was unsuccessful re-signing Tavares, who chose to fulfill a childhood dream by playing for his hometown team in Toronto. It’s gone well so far for him and the Maple Leafs.

As for the Isles, Lamoriello actually reacquired Matt Martin from Toronto. The popular fourth liner, who always brings energy and physicality to every shift, is reunited with linemates Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. The reunion has been successful with the trio bringing exactly the kind of tenacity to the ice that fans love.

They also came up short in their attempts to re-sign Calvin de Haan. He decided to leave for Carolina. Another improved team in a crowded Metro Division that’s as unpredictable as the autumn weather. Despite the loss, the Isles have enough defensemen to compensate. However, there is no true number one guy. While vets Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy are still around to give Trotz valuable minutes, neither are what they once were. Leddy can be counted on for good skating and staying healthy while the gritty Boychuk plays more physical with his unselfish play leading to injuries. Right now, he’s healthy.

That bodes well for a no name defense. If anyone is the most valuable, it’s probably Ryan Pulock. A younger right D with a blistering shot, he also is solid in his end sacrificing for the cause. He only has one goal following a big preseason. Sooner or later, that’ll change. Pulock possesses a deadly accurate one-timer that can beat goalies. Scott Mayfield also plays key minutes along with Mr. Overtime, Thomas Hickey and Adam Pelech. So, the blueline isn’t that bad despite no big star to anchor it.

Under Trotz, the team is more structured in their zone, keeping most shots to the outside. They’ve allowed both Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner to make the saves. In a recent shutout at home over the Devils this past weekend, Greiss made the big stops. Brock Nelson scored the insurance goal in the win that improved them to a impressive 6-0-0 versus divisional opponents. A great mark so early in the Trotz Era.

Nelson has been a pleasant surprise. With Tavares gone, the Isles had an opening in the top six. So far, so good for Nelson, whose seven goals pace the club. He has replaced Tavares by forming good chemistry with new captain Anders Lee and underrated playmaker Josh Bailey. The trio are doing their part so far with Bailey leading the team in assists (12) and points (15). The gritty Lee has done a bit of everything, with five goals including a team-leading four on the power play. He ranks second in scoring with 13 points while also showing a willingness to make opponents accountable with 21 penalty minutes.

While second-year pivot Mathew Barzal tries to overcome a slow start with just one goal on 18 shots, he remains a dangerous scoring threat that draws the attention of opponents. His superb skating and vision are why teams are looking to take him away. He’s still managed 10 assists for 11 points. A minus-seven rating is something he’ll need to improve on at even strength. Trotz has Barzal working with familiar linemates Anthony Beauvillier and Jordan Eberle. Neither have started well with Beauvillier only with one goal and a minus-six while Eberle is 4-3-7 with a minus-four rating. The trio are the only regulars up front who are struggling at five-on-five. It would behoove Barzal to think shot more. He’s becoming too predictable.

Encouraging for the Islanders is they are getting contributions throughout the lineup. Lamoriello addition Valtteri Filppula scored his fifth goal Monday night in a disappointing 4-3 shootout loss to the Canadiens. It was a game they had control of, leading 3-1 before a strong final two periods by Montreal forced extras. The Isles didn’t play well and got what they deserved, which Trotz referenced afterwards. Unlike the win over New Jersey on Saturday, they were outworked by a more determined opponent. Something Trotz won’t accept.

That kind of strong mindset is exactly what this franchise needs. They haven’t had it for a long time. Trotz brings credibility to how they play along with Lamoriello. It’s a perfect match. One other thing that makes it a good partnership is that both Lamoriello and Trotz are no nonsense guys who understand what it takes to be successful.

So, even after having a five-game winning streak snapped last night, Trotz said the right thing. Following the loss, he indicated that his team was easy to play against and thought it was the worst game of the season. A point Lee echoed in the locker room. Having accountability is good. It’s something we now see with the Rangers and their new coach, David Quinn. You also see it in New Jersey with John Hynes. Wanting more out of your team should be the case. Especially after losses. Players respond well to criticism and honesty.

For the first place Islanders, who lead the Metro Division with an 8-4-2 mark with 18 points, they know more is expected. They don’t have a great starting goalie. They must play hard and minimize the chances against so the goalie tandem of Greiss and Lehner can have success. So far, so good for a surprising team that’s done well till this point.

The mentality has finally changed for Islanders fans. There’s a reason to get excited. Their team won’t be a pushover anymore.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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