NHL Column: Islanders flying high without Tavares

New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal (13) scores a gaol past Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Cam Ward (30) during the second period of an NHL hockey game on Tuesday Jan. 22, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

In July, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed superstar center, John Tavares, stealing him away from the New York Islanders, the team that drafted him first overall in 2009. Tavares flourished with the Islanders, establishing himself as one of the premier forwards in the league. With the move, he abandoned his NHL beginnings, looking towards his childhood home team.

Prior to his decision, the Islanders tried to convince Tavares that the team’s losing ways would soon change. They hired reigning Stanley Cup winning head coach, Barry Trotz, and Hockey Hall of Fame general manager, Lou Lamoriello.

This was insufficient to Tavares as the thought of glory and championships in his home city was too good to pass up. The Maple Leafs were on the rise, poised to capture its first championship since 1967.

The hockey world insisted that the New York Islanders would be doomed with the loss of their homegrown star. They cried that it would be years before they could even imagine competing again. They were labeled destined to be basement dwellers for years to come.

Yet here we are on Jan. 24, over halfway through the 2018-19 season, and the Islanders sit in first place in the Metropolitan Division. The loss of Tavares has not been nearly as crippling as originally believed. The team has won 15 of its last 19 games, bringing them to 63 points on the year.

Tavares, it seemed, would be impossible to replace after his 84 point season last year. This season, he is scoring at an even better rate, on pace to surmount 90 points for the first time in his career.

But what is most confusing is that the Maple Leafs, with Tavares, have just 60 points, three less than the Islanders. They sit in second place in the Atlantic, miles behind the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Islanders missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons, but are finding success despite losing Tavares. The franchise has not won a division championship since 1988, when they were Patrick Division Champions. The leadership of Trotz and Lamoriello has been crucial to the organization’s turnaround.

Ironically, Lamoriello was key to the Maple Leafs’ rebuild as well, but left Toronto and pursued the position with the Islanders. Just as Lamoriello left Toronto, Tavares left New York as if they were trading places. The winning ways have followed Lou to Brooklyn.

The Islanders’ superior record to the Maple Leafs is an example of the beauty of sports, its unpredictability. Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle, among others, have stepped up this year. The team is playing a more complete game, relying less on a single player.

With that said, Barzal still brings the star power that critics worried they may lack. In only his second year, he has scored 45 points over 49 games. With the second best record in conference, the Islanders appear to be not only a playoff contender, but also a legitimate Cup threat. After leading the Capitals to their first championship last year, Barry Trotz hopes to return to the final with his new team.


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.