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).
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:
- Okposo – Tavares – Vanek (40 games)
- Bailey – Nielsen – Lee
- Grabner – Nelson – Clutterbuck
- Martin – Cizikas – McDonald
- MacDonald – Hamonic
- De Haan – Hickey
- Visnovsky – Strait
- Okposo – Tavares – Bailey
- Strome – Nelson – Kulemin
- Grabovski – Nielsen – Lee
- Martin – Cizikas – Clutterbuck/Grabner
- Hamonic – Leddy
- De Haan – Boychuk
- Hickey – Visnovsky
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).
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 2 – New York Islanders (2013-2015)