Washington Capitals: Will the New York Islanders pack enough offense to improve?

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - MARCH 01: Jakub Vrana #13 of the Washington Capitals in action against the New York Islanders during their game at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on March 01, 2019 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - MARCH 01: Jakub Vrana #13 of the Washington Capitals in action against the New York Islanders during their game at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on March 01, 2019 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

We continue our offseason look at the Metropolitan Division rivals and how they stack up against the Washington Capitals. Next up, the New York Islanders.

After recording a league low of 61 points in 2008-2009, the New York Islanders struck gold in having the ability to draft John Tavares first overall. This was expected to be the start of a new regime which would garner better success than the team had been experiencing as of late. The last Stanley Cup appearance for the Islanders was in 1983-1984 when they lost in the final after winning four cups in a row.

What they got instead was only four playoff appearances in nine years, without advancing further than the second round. After gaining more than or near 100 points in three seasons in a row, the team gained only 80 points and missed the playoffs while finishing next to last in the Metropolitan. So the ownership felt it was time to move on from the management team they had in place.

The Islanders responded by firing GM Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight, and replacing them with Lou Lamoreillo as GM and Barry Trotz as coach. This would automatically increase the rivalry intensity between the Capitals and Islanders, as it isn’t often a Stanley Cup winning coach becomes available a matter of weeks after winning it all. And the odds of the coach being from a division rival is even longer.

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With the new additions to the staff, the Islanders created instant credibility in the direction of the team, as Lamoreillo comes from a history of winning when with the New Jersey Devils and of course the latest Cup Champion coach in Trotz. The move paid off faster than could have been anticipated, given the departure of John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the team making it to the second round right away. Thanks to a complete shift in team defense philosophy they were able to be successful without the star power they were accustomed. How do you take the next step toward advancing your team after such a great start to the new regime?

In the case of the Islanders, you pretty much stand pat. They didn’t get involved in the trade market, but instead were satisfied with waiting until the free agency period opened. Right away, they lost Robin Lehner to the Chicago Blackhawks on a 1 year $5 million deal and Valtteri Filppula returned to the team that drafted him the Detroit Red Wings on a 2 year deal for $6 million.

The only response to these signings the Islanders had was to sign Semyon Varlamov to a 4 year $20 million deal. Although just in the last few days the team also added Derick Brassard on a one-year $1.2 million deal.  Other than these few additions and departures, the Islanders did a good job at signing their own free agents. They made the most important move first by not letting the newest captain Anders Lee leave, a la Tavares the previous off season, they now have Lee for another 7 years at $7 million AAV.  Retaining their own continued with signing back Tom Kuhnhacki, Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho-Sang. Just how much can a team dynamic change with a couple of switches to a roster?

In Robin Lehner, the Islanders lost a second runner up in the Vezina race and the winner of the Jennings and Masterton trophies. In an effort to offset the loss, they signed Seymon Varlamov who was once a Vezina first runner up as well. However, this was six years ago that Varlamov was a goalie of this magnitude.

First glance would make you think they are moving in a negative direction, but when comparing their career numbers they are largely similar. Lehner sports a career .918 SV% with a 2.70 GAA versus Varlamov’s career .916 SV% and 2.68 GAA. Also when looking over the last five seasons Varlamov was far more consistent in his numbers compared to Lehner, especially in GAA. An added benefit for Lehner’s numbers from last season could be a largely better team defense. Varlamov’s production could potentially reach the heights of his earlier years in Washington where he had a .917 SV% and 2.39 GAA, if not even higher given Trotz’s ability to raise the bar for his whole team defensively.

The only other significant change was essentially replacing Filppula with Brassard. Filppula provides a consistent 30 point production over the last few seasons, but it wasn’t until his first with a Barry Trotz system which he register a positive +/- since his heyday with the Red Wings. With the addition of Brassard, they get a player who is one year removed from a 46 point season and a recent history of at least approximately 40 points for the last five seasons.

From a defensive standpoint Brassard, had some early career struggles given his -42 while with the Blue Jackets. But these numbers improved with his time in New York with the Rangers as he posted +26, this was most likely a result of being on a more balanced team. Brassard lost that luxury when he dealt with being traded three times over the last two years. He struggled to find a fit for his skill set while being placed in an area he was less familiar, prior to last season he had no higher than about 45 dZS% but last season he has a 56 dZS%. With a much more balanced and defensive minded team like the Islanders, Brassard should find better success and have an opportunity to retrieve his previous form but will be asked to be defensively responsible as well.

How do these changes affect the Islanders when playing the Capitals? The teams split the season series last year at 2-2. As that record showed the teams were very evenly matched, which would be expected with the team play philosophies being largely similar.  Coincidentally, the team with the better team defense won every game.

Another factor in who had the advantage in each contest was the ability to control the transition facet of the game. The only game the Capitals faced Lehner in goal they lost, which occurred at the same time the Capitals played their weakest game against the Islanders. Looking forward, with match ups to come against Semyon Varlamov the Capitals hold the record at 3-5 but he was not the easiest to deal with as he holds a .933 SV% and 2.50 GAA against the Capitals.

light. Related Story. Metropolitan Division outlook: Pittsburgh Penguins

With very little changing for the Islanders, and the Capitals moving their focus to improving team defense at the expense of scoring depth, these two will be even closer matched. There might not be much high scoring, especially with the Islanders not filling the offensive hole they still have from Tavares’s departure, but these will be closely contested games with the better team defense prevailing in the end. Below are the dates we can look forward to seeing who plays better defense:

2019-2020 Season Match ups:

Friday, October 4th @ New York

Tuesday, December 31st @ Home

Saturday, January 18th @ New York

Monday, February 10th @ Home