The reasons behind the Islanders’ hot start

Johnny Boychuk (left) has been a big part of the Islanders' impressive start this season. (John Minchillo/AP)

The New York Islanders are a franchise that has made plenty of errors over the last two decades, and for the most part those mistakes are the reason that the team has been an NHL punchline for so many years.

Good can come out of misfortune, though, and a terrible mistake can be the catalyst for necessary change. That appears to be the case with the Islanders, who were forced to make a hard choice after the Thomas Vanek fiasco last season and who appear to be much, much better for having done so.

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In October, Isles’ G.M. Garth Snow sent a rich package to Buffalo in exchange for Thomas Vanek, a package which included Matt Moulson and first and second round draft picks. In March, with the playoffs out of reach and Vanek set to walk as a free agent, Snow flipped the winger to Montreal (along with a fifth round pick) for Sebastien Collberg and a second round selection. Put the deals together, and the trade ended up being first and fifth round draft picks, plus Matt Moulson, for Sebastien Collberg. It did not go over well.

However, because the Islanders’ pick ended up being a top 10 selection, the team had the option of deferring it to 2015; a useful choice to have but an ugly predicament to be in. New York could keep their 2015 pick, but that would mean passing on a top 5 pick in 2014 and would be the equivalent of putting a flashing sign over their home rink telling fans that the team had already written off all of 2014-15.

Alternatively, the Isles could make an early selection in 2014 and potentially miss out on a franchise cornerstone.

Either option was justifiable from a hockey perspective, though the old maxim of a bird in hand certainly applied. Only one option was ever justifiable from a business perspective. In the end, the team made the right choice, taking the high pick in the present and gambling on improvement over the summer. And improve they did.

Snow, with obvious support from ownership, went out and had himself a summer.

He overhauled the team’s goaltending, finding new options at both the No. 1 and No. 2 positions. He added two-thirds of a top-six forward line to the roster. When opportunity arose in the fall, he snapped up two defencemen—a pair of players who currently hold the No. 1 and No. 3 positions on the Isles’ blue line depth chart.

All of those additions were added to a group of emerging young players with virtually no significant subtractions from the mix. The result has been a 5-2-0 start.

Ironically, the team’s biggest change has yet to produce the desired results.

Of all the Islanders’ problems in 2013-14, goaltending was the most crucial; Evgeni Nabokov performed well below the league average as the team’s starter and both of the team’s other options played like the AHL-level goalies they were. New York finished last in the NHL with a 0.894 (all-situations) save percentage; so far this season the team has gotten a 0.896 save percentage out of its new tandem. History, however, suggests that won’t last, as starter Jaroslav Halak is a career 0.917 save percentage goaltender.

The additions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy on defence have been absolutely critical, particularly as injuries ravaged the Islanders’ lineup. All three of the club’s returning top-four defenceman from 2013-14 (Andrew MacDonald having been traded to Philadelphia) have suffered injuries, but through seven games Boychuk and Leddy have combined for 11 points and a plus-nine rating, with Boychuk in particular showing a surprising level of ability on the power play.

Boychuk, who 65 points in his final AHL season, had never been used much on the man advantage in Boston; his two power play goals already this year represent more than double what he had previously managed in his NHL career.

More telling than points (which capture only part of a defenceman’s game) or the problematic plus/minus statistic is how well the Isles have done on the shot clock with Boychuk and Leddy out there. With that duo in the ice at five-on-five, in an average hour the Islanders outshoot the opposition 32-21.

While the defensive additions have helped steady the ship in the wake of significant injury problems, New York’s key summer forward acquisition has fallen victim to them. Mikhail Grabovski scored three points for the Isles in his first three games with the team, but was knocked out early in Game 4 after suffering a concussion.

That has left the offensive load largely to returning players, and New York has seen some impressive gains from a trio of young first-round picks: Josh Bailey (ninth overall, 2008), Brock Nelson(30th overall, 2010) and Ryan Strome (fifth overall, 2011). Bailey suffered a broken hand in Thursday’s win over the Bruins but had been playing well prior to that; Bailey and Strome have combined for 14 points through seven contests.

So far, it’s been a winning combination for the Isles. Even with some significant setbacks—key injuries, a struggling No. 1 goaltender—the club has been able to get off to a hot start and seems like a prime contender for a postseason berth after a disastrous 2013-14 campaign.

Improving youth is one factor, veteran additions another, but the catalyst for it all just might be the fateful decision to deal the team’s 2015 first round pick, a decision which made the consequences of another failed year far too horrible to be tolerated.

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