The NHL's best and worst this week: Why the Islanders embrace doubt from outsiders

Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

This offseason, two New York-area teams dominated the headlines. After the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers landed the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the draft, respectively, both teams upgraded with flashy veterans (2013 Norris winner P.K. Subban, 2016 Calder winner Artemi Panarin) and appeared poised to make earlier-than-expected runs this season. The media fawned all summer.

Then there were the New York Islanders, the only of the New York-area teams to make the playoffs last spring. The Isles were the best defensive team in hockey. They brought back nearly the exact same roster for this season. And nobody was talking about them.

"Obviously, we notice it," captain Anders Lee said in a phone interview this week. "But there probably wasn't much to talk about with us."

That's fine for the Islanders, who, after losing three of four to start the season, have won nine straight and sit five points behind the Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division standings. They like flying under the radar.

"At times, absolutely we consider ourselves an underdog," Lee said. "Last year, that was a big part of our identity. This year, we're coming back with a very similar team but still have a lot to prove. It's hard to really come in and demand that attention. You demand respect by the way you play -- if you win, how your season goes -- but we haven't accomplished our goals just yet. And until we do that, we're going to have to keep proving everyone wrong."

Lee was an unrestricted free agent this summer, and though the contract took a bit longer to work out than expected, he stayed with the only team he has played for on a seven-year, $49 million deal. "It felt maybe a little more up in the air outside our circle than it really was," Lee said. "It was never really in question. This is where I want to be."

Brock Nelson also re-signed in May, meaning the top five scorers from last season were back. The team improved in the middle six with the addition of veteran Derick Brassard, who is officially a journeyman after suiting up for his seventh NHL team.

The biggest change was in net. The Islanders let Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner leave in free agency and, in turn, signed veteran Semyon Varlamov, with the belief that because of their stingy defensive system, there wouldn't be much of a drop-off. Varlamov, in a timeshare with Thomas Greiss (similar to what Lehner saw last season) has been solid: In seven starts, the former Av is 5-2 with a .929 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average. (In six starts, Greiss has nearly identical numbers.)

The only other noticeable difference with the Islanders is the inclusion of the kids. New York has a vaunted prospect system, thanks to recent strong drafting. Nineteen-year-old winger Oliver Wahlstrom has appeared in seven games. Although Wahlstrom is without a point, he has shown glimpses of his offensive promise. Meanwhile, defenseman Noah Dobson, 20, has cracked the lineup for only four games but appears to be sticking around the big club for the foreseeable future as he continues to earn coach Barry Trotz's trust.

"It's amazing how not only good at hockey they are but how well-rounded they are at this age. To step in at 19, 20 and play in this league," Lee said. "They're really good kids and mesh well with our group, which is pretty tight-knit. They've shown a lot of growth even in the short time I've been with them."

Also on the youth front: Lee noted that the three defensemen playing the most minutes are all 27 or under (Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield and Ryan Pulock). Those are workloads that Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy used to shoulder. Devon Toews, 25, has also taken on a bigger role.

Other than that, the Islanders are picking up right where they left off last season. They're allowing 2.23 goals per game, third-fewest in the league. Last season, a lot of was made of the Islanders' needing more scoring. Their offense is pedestrian again, averaging three goals per game and hovering around the league average.

"I don't think we get enough credit for our offense," Lee said. "We don't have trouble scoring goals. I just think that the way we do it is a little bit different than some other teams. We do such a good job defensively that we get a lot of credit, well deserved, in that regard, but our goal scoring isn't one of our weak spots. At the end of the day, you just have to score one more than the other team."

The transition into captaincy has been smooth for Lee. He took a few management courses while he was a student at Notre Dame. "I remember the big takeaways from a lot of the textbooks were that there's so many different ways to be a leader. There's not one specific way," Lee said. "There are leaders who lead by example, vocal leaders, et cetera. But the big thing is just to be yourself and not trying to be something that you're not. You want to be as authentic as possible."

Authenticity for the Islanders in 2019-20 plays into their identity. The team has embraced the ability to fly under the radar.

"It's been that way pretty much my entire time here," Lee said. "We go out there and do our best. We're used to having people doubt us, used to not having people pick us to make the playoffs and all those things -- maybe because of the rough patch we had. But we've been a pretty good team for a little while now. But until you've earned it and have done it over and over again, you're going to have to go through these things. "

Jump ahead:
Emptying the notebook | What we liked this week
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up

Emptying the notebook

Lee said last summer that he had a hard time not thinking about how the season ended, getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. "It's always going to weigh on you, obviously," Lee said. "You need to move on, but you should never forget how you feel when you lost." Asked what he thought was his team's ultimate demise, Lee said: "We really just weren't, unfortunately, able to catch the momentum. Games 1 and 2 were extremely close. Give credit to Carolina for coming in and stealing those games from us. From then on out, we just couldn't grasp a bounce. We seemed to have a great response every time Pittsburgh scored a goal in the first round. We were fortunate sometimes, and we earned them other times. We couldn't get either to go against Carolina."

I returned to my alma mater, Penn State, for a visit this week. Side note: It was awesome to meet so many hockey-loving students there. I also had a chance to meet Penn State hockey coach Guy Gadowsky ahead of the team's big weekend series against Wisconsin (which, I must add, the Nittany Lions swept). I asked Gadowsky the biggest trends he has noticed in college hockey. "The trend is that it's just getting more and more competitive. There's more and more players coming from Europe. There's more players being grown, for lack of a better word, in nontraditional areas of the United States. With the exposure of television right now, I think it's becoming more attractive to Canadians. There's more and more better players and more college hockey players getting to the NHL." (The Nittany Lions have two Russians, two Finns and six Canadians on the roster).

When it comes to the on-ice trend he notices, Gadowsky says college hockey is a copycat league -- to the NHL. "Quite honestly, we do follow the NHL. We did in the past, but now it's just so easy because there is such great data now. We can get video of whatever you want, the analytics with it. So the trends pretty much follow them. We're a little behind because we copy them."

I had an interesting discussion with Gadowsky about whether there would ever be puck-tracking in college hockey (the NHL is expected to debut its system, developed by SMT, some this season). "Someday there probably would be puck tracking in college hockey, too," Gadowsky said before noting that there would be some hurdles to clear regarding getting (and distributing) data from student-athletes. However, it's not totally out of the realm. "For instance, in college we're able to put heart rate monitors on the players and get all that information, and in the NHL you can't," Gadowsky said. "Because of the professional hockey players' association. They want to own that stuff. If it's going to be something detrimental to their renegotiations, they want to hold it. Whereas in college, we can do it."

I wrote a story, out today, on Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoreoux-Morando making comebacks as new mothers. What interested me most: When the women's hockey team battled with USA Hockey in the 2017 contract negotiations, one of the things the players fought for was maternity benefits. They got them, and the twins were the first to use them.

The U.S. senior women's national team is in Pittsburgh this week for a joint training camp with Canada in place of the canceled Four Nations Cup, which was supposed to go this week. The Swedish players' standoff with their federation caused the cancellation. It feels like we just got through it, but the U.S. players' contract with USA hockey comes up again in 2021. I asked Lamoureux-Davidson what she hoped to achieve with the next contract. "What we're trying to create is a cultural shift in how women's hockey is supported, from the ground up. That doesn't happen overnight, and that doesn't happen just because you sign a contract. We've seen great positive strides with where the program is going. There's been some structural changes with how the women's program is staffed, and we're hoping to see the benefits of. But the big things we fought for -- equal marketing, sustainable livable wage, support -- we're still working on that."

She also mentioned institutional support. "For example, the boys U18 team is funded with millions of dollars through U.S. Hockey," Lamoureux-Davidson said. "There isn't an equivalent girls program there. There might not need to be from a developmental standpoint, but how else can we support girls hockey?"

Coming this week to ESPN.com: Player Confidential!

A project I've worked on for a few months is coming to life this week on ESPN.com, and I couldn't be more excited. Since the summer, I've been polling NHL players on a variety of questions, including the NHL's drug policy, whether there is a cocaine problem in the league, the best and worst visiting locker rooms, dreaded road trips, burner Twitter accounts and, perhaps most importantly, whether there is Gritty fatigue.

The art team did a terrific job illustrating the story, and they couldn't help but add one of my favorite anecdotes of the summer. I asked players (on the record) what impulse purchases they made over the past year. Here were my favorite responses. Some are more relatable than others.

Oskar Sundqvist, F, St. Louis Blues: "A dog. It's a Corgi. I got it two weeks ago [before the start of the NHL season]. My girlfriend told me, 'Let's go look at dogs. We're not buying any.' I said, 'OK, sure.' Then I fall in love. At first, I was like, 'No, no, no, I'm not going to buy one today.' I drove out there, and then I brought home a dog. Her name is Luna."

Haydn Fleury, D, Carolina Hurricanes: "I actually ordered three Cleveland Brown jerseys, midsummer, at like 2 in the morning. You could probably guess what I was doing. Odell, Baker and Jarvis. That was very impulsive. I ordered them when I was back home but ordered them [to Carolina]. Then when I got here, I kind of forgot I ordered them, and there were just three jerseys in my mailbox. I was like, 'F---'s sake.' I blame PayPal. It's too easy. You just click, and it's at your door."

Taylor Hall, F, New Jersey Devils: "A Fendi backpack. Bought it like a week ago."

Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York Rangers: "I bought a jacket when I went to London this summer. Didn't plan on doing on it, but it just happened. Nothing special, but I was there for a few days, walked around, and it caught my eye."

Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche: "Umm ... the other day I was driving, and I stopped to buy myself a Slurpee. I wouldn't usually do that, but I did."

What we liked this past week

  • Colleague Greg Wyshynski had a spicy preseason take: The Canucks are a playoff team. I can't believe it, but Wysh might be right on this one. Vancouver looks legit -- or at least, the offense is. At 9-3-2, the Canucks have the second-best record in the Pacific Division. In half of their 14 games, they've scored five or more goals. And they have a great, young playmaking duo in Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson.

  • Positive attendance signs from the desert:

What we didn't like this past week

Three stars

Elias Pettersson, C, Vancouver Canucks

He's shaking off signs of a sophomore slump. The Swede posted three goals and six assists in four games this week. His 20 points this season are the most by a Canucks player through the team's first 14 games since Trevor Linden in 1995-96 (21).

Mike Smith, G, Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers might just keep it up if Smith keeps playing like this. He was sensational, stopping 51 of 52 shots against the Penguins. In two games this week (both wins), the 37-year-old has a .974 save percentage and a 0.98 goals-against average.

Jakub Vrana, C, Washington Capitals

With the (perhaps a little tipsy) World Series champion Washington Nationals in the crowd, the 21-year-old Vrana gave them something to cheer for, scoring his first career hat trick in the Caps' victory on Sunday. And yeah, they cheered all right:

Games of the week

Monday: Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins

Pittsburgh's early rash of injuries has been relentless. Right when the Pens get Evgeni Malkin back, they put Patric Hornqvist on IR. They've managed to stay competitive but get a big test in the East's most dangerous team on Monday.

Tuesday: Carolina Hurricanes at Philadelphia Flyers (ESPN+)

Nearly a month into the season, the Hurricanes and Flyers are still trying to establish consistency. Both are hovering around the middle of the pack in the Metropolitan Division, making this a big game for both clubs.

Sunday: Edmonton Oilers at Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are, confusingly, better than expected this season. They get a chance to make up ground in the Pacific Division by facing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl ... and OK, the rest of the Oilers, too.

Quote of the week

"If I tried that, I'd pull my groin."

-- Keith Tkachuk (via Sportsnet's Ryan Leslie) commenting on his son's ridiculous goal.