This post originally appeared on The Hockey Writers
As an Islander fan, those are words I wasn't sure I would ever be able to say and mean given the teams struggles on and off the ice the last 20+ years.
However, after Saturdays 3-1 victory over the Devils, the Islanders sit at 17-7, tied with the Lightning and Montreal for the most wins in the NHL. They are also in a tie for the third most points in the NHL behind the Lightning, Montreal,and the Ducks. The surprising start by the Islanders has really caught the imagination of fans thinking of what could possibly be. Today, we will look at elements that could lead to the Islanders holding the top spot in the NHL come spring time and conclude with my thoughts on if those are realistic expectations for the team.
Following last season, the Islanders knew they couldn't once again fail to address the goalie situation. Knowing that, they got to work early in May acquiring Halak from the Capitals in exchange for a fourth round pick. A few weeks later, the Islanders had their goalie as they announced they had signed Halak to a 4 year contract worth 18 million dollars. Although, he struggled in October, Halak has proved to be everything the Islanders hoped he would and then some. In November, Halak set a career high undefeated streak as he won 9 in a row, he is 1 behind Billy Smith for the Islanders record for most consecutive victories by a goalie. His superb play earned him the NHL's number one star honors for the week that just ended. Halak will be a huge key if the Islanders hope to hold the top spot in the NHL come spring time.
Defensive Additions Paying Dividends
After the Islanders signed Grabovski and Kulemin in July, the talk then shifted to defense. While the Islanders had improved both in net and up front, defense was largely the area that had gone untouched. So, fans and writers alike began to wonder who the Islanders would target and when they would make their move. It started to get late in the off-season, but finally, on October 4th, one week before the the teams home opener, the Islanders finally made their moves. It was on that day the Islanders acquired Johnny Boychuk from the Bruins for a couple draft picks, and Nick Leddy from the Blackhawks in exchange for a couple of prospects including Anders Nilsson. The impact these two have had on the team can't be said enough. They have taken stress off the entire defense core, especially Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan. Additionally, they have allowed for Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock among others to get proper development time they otherwise may not have gotten. The most potentially overlooked aspect of them though is that they are both former Stanley Cup Champions. The impact of that in a room like the Islanders who for the most part are still trying to figure out how to win is huge.
The Islanders rebuild has began to bear fruits for them this season as forwards Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee have all taken on important roles for the team. Nelson has taken on the biggest role as he is tied with John Tavares for the team lead in goals with 10 and third on the team in points with 20. Not to be overlooked, Strome has really come on as well with 17 points in 24 games. Strome is tied with John Tavares for second on the team in assists with 13, 3 behind Kyle Okposo for the team lead. Lastly, Lee has been a physical presence since he got called up at the end of October. He has managed to put up 6 points in 18 games including 5 goals. He has given the Islanders a net front presence that they otherwise lacked except for Brock Nelson on the power play. Also, he has shown the ability to score dirty goals much in the way of Mark Parrish and Matt Moulson. The continued maturation of these kids will be key to the Islanders success this season and in the future.
Is the Top Spot Realistic?
Could the Islanders actually finish in the number on spot in the NHL this season? If I was a betting man, I would probably say no as they have a lot of competition for that spot with teams that are more battle tested than they are. However, if they hope to finish in that spot, the play of Jaroslav Halak will be a huge key for them. If Halak is able to play to his career averages that will go a long way in seeing the Islanders finish in that top spot and potentially raise a banner on opening night in Brooklyn next season. Additionally, team health will be another huge key. The Islanders had stayed relatively healthy this year until recently. The Islanders are currently without defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Lubomir Visnovsky. Those two, especially with their years of experience will be huge for the Islanders down the stretch and into the playoffs.