It was a quiet day for the Islanders as the trade deadline came and went, with GM Lou Lamoriello announcing shortly after 3 p.m. Monday that the organization had “stood pat.” That means the last 21 games of the season, which will determine the team’s playoff fortunes, will be decided by the players who have been within the organization all year.
Reports surfaced over the last week that New York had shown interest in Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and Mark Stone. All three of those players are high-end point producers who would have supplemented the top of the Isles’ lineup. The Columbus Blue Jackets stepped in and undercut the market, decisively making a decision to put their chips in the middle of the table to both acquire Duchene (among a lot of other rentals) and keep Panarin.
That essentially left Stone on the market, and he, too, ultimately was moved. The Vegas Golden Knights were able to strike a deal shortly before the deadline.
The result is the Isles must now move forward with what they have. Whether they were unable or uninterested to strike a deal with other teams for any other player is unknown, but what is fairly clear is the approach they took was a high-risk, high-reward one that simply did not pan out during this deadline.
There’s something to be said for that. Most analytical models reference the Islanders as a “fringe contender.” In other words, in terms of probability, a lot would have to go right for the team to win the Stanley Cup this season. Weighing the asset cost of a second- or third-tier player against those probabilities, which is inherently what a general manager should be thinking about, put Lamoriello in somewhat of an unenviable spot.
With a hungry fanbase and a team that’s earned themselves a chance to upgrade, strategically passing on those middle-tier players might be a tough sell. But if the idea is to build a longer-term foundation, standing pat might not be the worst decision. Deadline decisions, whether moves or made or not, come with perceptive risk. That’s what Lou Lamoriello and his staff are now facing — time will tell how their decision to go “all-in or bust” plays out.
In light of all of this, as play starts on Wednesday, the Islanders are still (barely) in first place and are still very likely to be playing games past the first week of April. So let’s talk about four things they could do to further optimize their roster before the end of the season.
1. A Defensive Rotation
With Thomas Hickey returning to the lineup Tuesday, the Islanders have a fortunate situation of having seven healthy defensemen who are viable options to play consistent minutes on a playoff-caliber team. In fact, if you look at the scatter plot below of Shot Attempt % (Corsi) relative versus Game Score, you can see that only Nick Leddy is actually in the “bad” quadrant. The rest of the players are either stronger possession players relative to the team or high producers.
This flexibility will give Barry Trotz a lot of options moving forward with his defense. With 20 games to go and the team currently a strong candidate to make the playoffs, now might be a good time to start resting players to ensure everyone is fresh for the games ahead.
We’ve seen teams do this with success in the NBA, and many (including Toronto’s GM) believe the strategic direction of resting players from time-to-time will reach the NHL soon. Not only will a rotation allow for players to rest up, it will also allow Barry Trotz to try out new combinations heading into the playoffs.
This “testing period” could lead to better evaluation during the stretch run as the team looks to clinch their first playoff berth since 2016.
2. Immediately Call-Up Michael Dal Colle or Josh Ho-Sang
After the trade deadline, teams are afforded four AHL call-ups through the end of the season. The Islanders immediately used one of them yesterday, demoting Devon Toews and recalling him practically instantaneously. This made Toews eligible for the AHL playoffs (Bridgeport is currently 2nd in points in the AHL), should the Sound Tigers play longer than the Islanders.
It would be somewhat reckless to cycle through their remaining call-ups in case the injury bug strikes at the wrong time, but the team should look at using one of them to recall either Michael Dal Colle or Josh Ho-Sang for Thursday’s game against Toronto.
The two players could not be more dissimilar. Dal Colle is a defensive-minded left wing while Ho-Sang is a shifty, offense-first, pass-oriented right wing. But, as seen above, both players have been able to help drive play while in the lineup. The team has flexibility on the wings as players like Leo Komarov and Josh Bailey can play either side, but they should aim to start preparing at least one of these players for potential playoff games.
This will also enable the team to create a forward rotation of rest (more on that below), while (again) testing out new combinations heading into the end of the season.
3. Find the Right Linemates for Mathew Barzal
It’s not exactly a state secret that Mathew Barzal has struggled since the All-Star break. Heading into Thursday’s game, the Isles’ star center has just 6 points in 13 games and has played the last four of them with depth players and bottom-liners. This isn’t a major surprise — Barry Trotz has done this with other young players this season if he feels the player’s game is off-kilter.
There’s no real reason to believe that will continue to be the case as the team approaches the playoffs, and as a result it will be imperative that Trotz is able to find the right linemates for Barzal moving forward.
One of the most alarming facets of Barzal’s game is that he is barely positive relative to his teammates in high danger chances. In other words, the Islanders are actually a similar amount of high danger chances for per hour when Barzal is *off the ice* versus when he is on it. Last year, the Islanders were 6.39% better with Barzal on the ice in high danger chances per Natural Stat Trick. Frankly, this is a pretty big year-over-year difference.
Given that Barzal is the team’s best and (by far) most dynamic player, this is something that needs to be fixed and addressed. Finding that right combination for him — and the team — to thrive in the playoffs should be one of Barry Trotz’s top priorities.
4. Rest, Rest, Rest
As mentioned above, part of the idea of calling up either Dal Colle or Ho-Sang is not just for their skillsets (though that is the most important reason), but to give players the opportunity to rest up before the playoffs. Most notable on the list would be the three members of the fourth line, who act as the Isles’ top defensive unit but have also not historically played well unless all three are present on the ice at the same time.
Obviously, it’s too early to start giving Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck continual rest, but it is important the Isles have all three of them healthy moving forward. Starting a rotation with the three of them, Leo Komarov, Andrew Ladd, and Valtteri Filppula would ensure that the team’s depth has time to rest *and* give a player like Michael Dal Colle or Josh Ho-Sang an opportunity to insert themselves in the lineup and stay there.
Here's the thing that is deeply alarming, more so than not being able to land a Duchene/Stone. It is Game 62. How in the world does Lamoriello and/or Trotz think the October lineup (+Toews) will outperform the one with Dal Colle/Ho-Sang at this point? See the annotations below: pic.twitter.com/3OiGJYLYvE— Carey Haber (@habermetrics) February 27, 2019
As we recently learned, the Islanders’ do not particularly have a ton of forward depth. As it currently stands, the team is just an injury away from having Tom Kuhnhackl or Ross Johnston back in the lineup full time. And as we see above, the results of that are not particularly pretty - not just recently, but through October too (when both players were more frequently in the lineup). The Islanders’ best successes this season have come during times when one of Dal Colle or Ho-Sang were in, so why not give them another chance?
(Ed. Note: Looks like some extra late-season resting has already begun.)
The Islanders are a team that, to date, has outplayed the sum of their parts. To do that, they’ll need for that to continue, but with some optimizations along the way.