It’s a simple concept.
A professional hockey team, acutely aware of its limitations on the offensive side of the ice, could have success by doubling down on what could be controlled. Defensive positioning, forwards supporting defensemen, gap control, neutral zone awareness; all in an effort to limit high danger chances against. If the goalies do their jobs and all of the skaters stay responsible, turnovers can be forced and offense - focused again on the high danger chances - can be created from the resulting confusion. As long as all four lines and three defensive pairings are aggressive and executing the system in tandem, it works.
This was the basis of “Islander Hockey,” something Barry Trotz has been referencing throughout his entire tenure with the club. They were defensively stiffing, but never out of a game. All four lines coming at opponents in waves, forcing them into mistakes. A combination of a tested and true strategy and a roster with something to prove.
“We played Islander hockey tonight; four lines, we just kept coming at them, we stayed on the puck, we won our battles.” - Barry Trotz pic.twitter.com/8AC5clzgik— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) December 6, 2019
This was the identity that the shapeless, sporadically successful franchise had been lacking for so long. “That’s effort and that’s work ethic,” Trotz said in February 2019, after an overtime win over Colorado and with his team in first place in the Metropolitan Division, “That’s Islander hockey right there.”
A little over a year later, “Islander Hockey” is M.I.A.
I mean, what the hell is this?
Three lazy passes and a turnover later, a guy - who had never scored in the NHL, by the way - walks into the slot and just blows the puck past the goalie - who would get pulled at the end of the period, by the way. How is that “Islander Hockey?”
Or this one, from the same game. Please notice: the Islanders are on the power play here:
This would be the first of three shorthanded goals the Islanders would give up in their last two games. Devon Toews goes from having control, to losing the puck without much of a fight. There’s no teammate near him (one guy’s going off the ice for a change) until Brock Nelson catches up to Montreal’s Paul Byron just in time to watch him zip the puck past Semyon Varlamov for the Canadiens fourth goal of the game.
Okay, last one. This was the final goal of a 5-0 beatdown in Nashville in mid-February.
Some laziness with the puck and Smith, who already had two goals in the game, simply walks behind three Islanders and scores the first hat trick of his career. Where is the “Islander Hockey” in this clip? Or really, any goal from this game? The Islanders have been the only team in the NHL this season to make the Predators look like their 2017 Stanley Cup Finalist incarnation.
In last night’s game in Ottawa, against a team in 29th place overall, the Islanders were hemmed in their own zone for over a minute in the second period because they simply decided that the puck would be better off behind their own net than travelling towards Senators goalie Craig Anderson. I don’t think it led directly to a goal against, but it doesn’t matter. The series of aimless, indecisive, noodle-armed hot potatoes led me to contemplate exactly what happened to this team’s once trademarked mantra.
They’ve lost five straight games and nine of their last 11. Since their 17-game point streak ended in mid-November, they’re 19-20-6, a mark that could generously be described as “sub-mediocre” and maybe ungenerously described as being “complete dog shit.” At one point, they were battling for a second or third place finish in their division. Now they’re hoping other teams around them will also continue to lose just so they can hang on to the final Wild Card berth (oh, and their traditional rivals, cast off for dead for most of the season, are also right on their heels).
Much of the blame is given to their lack of offense throughout the lineup. The Islanders have been shut out this year in 7.7% of their games, nearly twice the amount that other playoff teams are. It’s even worse when you look at games since the calendar flipped to 2020. They’ve been blanked four times in the last two months and change, a 14.8% rate. It’s not a surprise at this point to know that half of this roster, on any given night, simply will not score. And when the five or six guys who can are either shut down by the other team or snake-bitten by rotten puck luck, it’s game over.
The thing is, last season’s squad wasn’t exactly lighting the scoreboard on fire, either. Scoring droughts were happening then, too. They had a “power play” that was the polar opposite of an advantage. But they still picked up wins and stayed on pace through “Islander Hockey.”
After a huge 2-1 win over the Habs last March 14th, Trotz said: “We’re not a really high-scoring team, but I do know we have 40-something wins, so we’ve outscored teams 41 times. So, yes [we can outscore teams]. But we’re not going play the way they want to play. We want them to play the way we need to play.”
With few key injuries or hiccups along the way, the Islanders were like a well-oiled machine in 2018-19. From the time they found their groove in early December, right on through to the second round of the playoffs, “Islander Hockey” was an actual thing we saw night in, night out, with rare exceptions.
Even earlier this season, Trotz seemed very satisfied with his team’s work in the defensive zone saying, “If we’re positionally sound, you could spend all day there, well, you’re not going to get anything.”
Right now, teams are doing whatever they want to the Islanders, and Trotz’s team either can’t or won’t exert their will to force opponents into “Islander Hockey.” Things that don’t exist in “Islander Hockey” are happening regularly; odd man rushes against, guys being uncovered in the slot, whole lines skating merrily through the neutral zone unmolested, nobody apparently knowing where his teammate is at any given time.
(Trotz’s other key phrase last season was “predictability.” As this slump has continued, the only thing that’s predictable has been the Islanders’ inability to find their true game.)
Maybe the rest of the NHL has figured them out. Maybe injuries to Casey Cizikas, Adam Pelech and, now, Johnny Boychuk, have hampered their ability to find that groove again. Maybe it’s the goalies. (it’s always easy to blame the goalies). Maybe the other injuries that have necessitated time-on-ice juggling have finally caught up with the players who have been healthy the whole time. Maybe the season-long search for four fully functioning lines has finally caught up to them. Maybe it’s just an incredibly long run of bad luck that’s extended to the absolute worst time of the season for bad luck to happen.
What you think the reason is, you’re probably right. Maybe it’s something else.
Whatever it is, it isn’t “Islander Hockey.”