The Big Gainers: Part 2 – New York Islanders

In part 1, we looked at the Chicago Blackhawks, the team with perhaps the most extreme improvement of any modern NHL club since 2005. The Hawks transformation from basement dwellers to favourites occurred over three seasons, starting in 2006 and culminating in 2009. 

The New York Islanders might be in the middle of a similar transformation, depending on how they do next year. A below average possession club in 2013-14, Islanders GM Garth Snow transformed them into the third best corsi club in the entire league this year with a flurry of off-season activity. If NYI can take another step forward next year, they’ll enter elite territory. 

Here’s how it happened.

The Big Gain

2013-14: 48.7% corsi

2014-15: 53.5% corsi

That’s nearly a 5% intra-seasonal shift in possession. The improvement took the Islanders from the 22nd best possession team in the league to the third best, an incredibly rapid single season ascent. 

In practical terms, the corsi shift meant the Islanders shot differential at even strength went from just +11 to +328 over a full season. In 2013-14, the Islanders averaged just 29.6 shots/60 at 5on5. In 2014-15, that jumped to 32.4/60. They simultaneously reduced their shots against per hour by over two (29.4 to 27.5). 

What Changed?

Garth Snow had himself a summer. 

In contrast to the Blackhawks, New York’s draft stars were already picked and established in the NHL. Unlike they Hawks, New York hadn’t been able to effectively surround John Tavares and Kyle Okposo with a strong enough supporting cast to get over the hump. 

That changed last off-season. Snow was perhaps the most aggressive general manager in both the free agent and trade markets. He started the summer by signing veteran possession players Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. Neither guy put up much big counting stats this season, but they enabled coach Jack Capuano to give his stars the high ground without having the middle of the rotation get killed. Tavares’ quality of competition went down in comparison to the previous year and his offensive zone to defensive zone ratio improved. Ditto Kyle Okposo. 

The truly transformative improvement likely came through a pair of blueline trades, however. By acquiring Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk for a collection of picks and prospects, Snow firmed up the club’s main weakness in two, quick strokes. The additions gave the Islanders a couple of legitimate top-4, puck moving options on the back-end, buttressing existing young players like Travis Hamonic and Calvin De Haan, while bumping lesser veterans like Brian Strait into supporting roles. 

Here’s roughly how the Islanders roster changed as a result of all these moves:

2013-14:

  • Okposo – Tavares – Vanek (40 games)
  • Bailey – Nielsen – Lee
  • Grabner – Nelson – Clutterbuck
  • Martin – Cizikas – McDonald
  • Strome
  • MacDonald – Hamonic
  • De Haan – Hickey
  • Visnovsky – Strait
  • Donovan/Carkner

2014-15:

  • Okposo – Tavares – Bailey
  • Strome – Nelson – Kulemin
  • Grabovski – Nielsen – Lee
  • Martin – Cizikas – Clutterbuck/Grabner
  • Hamonic – Leddy
  • De Haan – Boychuk
  • Hickey – Visnovsky
  • Strait

Aside from the notable additions, the Islanders also improved with the subtraction of Andrew MacDonald, who has been a terrible possession player forever. He was dealt at the 2014 trade deadline to the Flyers for a handful of picks, but the true benefit to New York was just getting him off their roster (especially since he was playing on the first pairing unit for some reason). 

Summary

The Islanders already had a stock pile of young stars thanks to years of being in the Eastern Conference basement. Unfortunately, the presence of Tavares and company could only move New York from terrible to mediocre. Getting over the hump meant finding quality depth. 

Here’s what changed for them:

– Signed proven hard minute possession players Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.

– Acquired top-4 defenders Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk without sacrificing roster players.

– Natural maturation of quality prospects like Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and Ryan Strome.

– Traded away boat anchor Andrew MacDonald.

Calgary is in a similar situation at this point. They have some cornerstone kids and one or two pillar veterans, but need guys who can fill out the roster and move the puck the right way at both forward and defense. And while there is still some internal assets who may prove to be decent NHLers, the fact is Brad Treliving will have to land several good veterans via free agency or trade if Calgary is to take a big step forward sooner rather than later.

The Big Gainers Series

Part 1 – Chicago Blackhawks (2006-2009)

Part 2 – New York Islanders (2013-2015)

    • Curtis

      Really he was used as a third liner but he was injured on and off all season. He miget be having another sports hernia surgery which might freeze any trade market for him

  • Curtis

    So if we did something similar, I would say the two possession players that we could sign could be Williams & Frolik. Trade for a defender or two (maybe a good possession player like Ekholm?) and get rid of our boat anchor in Engelland (which I doubt will happen)

    • Actually, it would be more like getting rid of Wideman or Russell. Or at least moving them down the rotation. But, yeah that’s roughly how it would have to go. Also, Monahan would have to become as good as Tavares 😉

  • beloch

    A necessary but hard part of what Snow did was to identify players who either need easier deployment or players who need to be removed from the team.

    • We all love watching Bouma, but he was in over his head this season. He is not the worst player on the Flames, but his season CF% of 37.44% was. Clearly, he does not belong in the top six.
    • Like Bouma, Byron is far from the worst player on the team. However, he probably needs easier deployment than what he got this season.
    • Russel and Wideman are not the worst defenders on the team, but they got clobbered playing second pairing minutes. One or both of them should be on the third pair.
    • Engelland got slightly tougher minutes after Giordano was injured, but he was still dominated by fairly easy competition. He should not be playing for the Flames, even on the third pair.
    • Joe Colborne looked good in the playoffs. He finally started to play a bit physically, although he did draw some untimely penalties. In the regular season he was, on average, a very tepid player. He’s a smart kid and comes off great in interviews, but he’s a guy the Flames should consider moving.
    • Matt Stajan had some great moments this season, but he had fairly easy deployment and the worst CF% of any veteran forward. Maybe he needs better line-mates, or maybe it’s time to trade him.
    • Markus Granlund and Max Reinhart didn’t look very good in the NHL this year. They’re young and developing, but far enough along that we have a fairly good idea of what they’ll be. Is Reinhart worth signing again? Should Granlund, perhaps, be shopped in exchange for a defensive prospect?

    I’m going to get trashed for posting this. The Flames had a great year and a lot of people love every player. How can I suggest dumping Staj? He’s great in the room! Colborne is going to be great in a season or two! Engelland is a warrior! etc..

    Bringing good players in means that you have to let go of some of your old players. This is an inescapable truth.

    • Byron Bader

      Even though I would hesitate to move Granlund or Colborne because they are young and still discernibly improving, I’ll agree fully that the Flames still need to improve, that changes need to be made and that this group of players is at the top of the list that require improvements.

    • Byron Bader

      Actually one of your very few articles that I agree with. Don’t worry about the bashers..they are the typical fans that are satisfied with just having made the playoffs and write in to get rid of Bolig. They sense the team needs to get bigger/heavier/better but will not accept that some of their favourite stars such as Byron, Granlund, Stajan, Colborne etc need to be moved for defensive or better prospects….

  • Byron Bader

    Dal Colle coming in this year or next too. They’re going to be good for a long time.

    I hope the Flames can pull off something similar to the Leddy/Boychuk transactions for at least one defensemen. Use a few of those seconds and a decent forward prospect to bring in a 2nd pairing driver. Or sign Petry or Franson. Either or.

  • Byron Bader

    Great article. The problem is allot of teams are looking for top 4 defensive upgrades this offseason (Dallas, Edmonton,etc). BT has been a steady hand so far but appears to be overly cautious. Pwtience can be a virtue but you occasionally need to crack some eggs to make an omelette.

  • Byron Bader

    So all we have to do is find some team/s that are prepared to trade us a top 3/4 defensemen for a song and dance and we can change our possession numbers. Last fall as the Islanders were acquiring these two guys many on this site advocated us acquiring them. Can we get a UFA or 2 that will be an upgrade on the back end. If Gio and TJ are you number one pairing they can play against anyone and in any situation for the next say 3 years. Wides and Russell as a 3rd pairing could cause real headaches for other teams 3rd and 4th lines. But realistically who makes up our second pairing without paying a kings ransom?

  • Byron Bader

    What do the Flames need? A 6’2-6’5 215lb right handed defender about 24 to play along side TJ. Who fits the bill and what would be the cost? Do the Flames have the assets to get it done?

  • RKD

    As much as Garth Snow gets lambasted on a regular basis, I really like his moves in getting both Boychuk and Leddy as well as Grabo and Kuls. I thought the Islanders would have build on last year’s playoffs and defeated the Capitals in the first round but that’s part of the growing process.