Death, taxes, and discounting the New York Islanders until they go on a run that forces you to pay attention.
It's been a yearly tradition for the Isles in the Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz era. But as a rival player told me recently: "The Islanders have the strongest team identity in the league."
One of the ways that manifests itself: the team's veterans know how to take the outside noise (or lack thereof) in stride.
"Maybe when I was younger in this league, it would be something that would bother me," forward Matt Martin said. "But we don't need to focus on the negativity. Like there was a lot of it at the beginning of the year. 'They retooled.' 'Last year was a miracle run.' Blah, blah, blah. We also don't really need to focus on positivity, as we're getting more attention now and our winning streak grows. We just want to go about our business, and if that's flying under the radar, that's flying under the radar."
Martin acknowledged it: we're at the part of the cycle where the Islanders are getting some credit. And rightfully so. After putting together a nine-game winning streak -- currently longest in the league -- New York catapulted to the top of the East Division, which was pegged as the most competitive re-aligned division ahead of the season. (It helps that New York has gone a perfect 4-0 against the Boston Bruins). The Isles have a plus-16 goal differential in that stretch, limiting opponents to just 1.67 goals per game. They are also the only team not to lose in regulation at home this season; this is all the more impressive since the Coliseum had its first game with fans, including 1,000 frontline workers, last Thursday. Entering the weekend, New York's 1.79 goals per game differential at home marked the team's highest since 1983-84 -- the last of the five straight trips to the Stanley Cup Final.
As the Isles bulldoze toward matching the 15-0-2 streak they put together early last season, it's not premature to wonder if this could be their year.
For Martin, a 12-year veteran on his second stint with the team, losing in last year's Eastern Conference Final -- the team's first appearance there in 27 years -- was a key moment in the process.
"Getting that close and losing hurt that much more," Martin said. "The wave of emotion that came after that run ended ... we have a better understanding now of what it takes, and a better understanding of really how bad we do want it, and how much of an amazing journey it is, not just to win, but the memories you make throughout that whole process, and how much fun it is to go the distance with a group of guys."
"Tampa was battle-tested; they went through those same kinds of emotions, when they set all of the records for the regular season in the post-Cup era, then got knocked out by Columbus in four straight games [in 2019]," Martin said. "I think they found their way, obviously made some changes throughout the lineup, but all their top guys got that experience. Tampa has been a top team in this league for multiple years now, and they were finally able to break through after getting that experience. Hopefully that's what we can take away."
Martin made another salient point earlier: there were a lot who doubted the Isles could replicate the success this season. After being strapped against the salary cap, Lamoriello was forced to make tough decisions, like trading one of the team's best young defensemen, Devon Toews, to Colorado.
What outsiders discounted: the Isles' strong drafting over the last few seasons. Defensemen Noah Dobson (the No. 12 pick in 2018) and winger Oliver Wahlstrom (No. 11 in 2018) have stepped into the lineup seamlessly in regular roles. And it appears Kieffer Bellows (No. 19 in 2016) is getting his second chance at a first impression, having spent a bulk of the season on the taxi squad.
But Bellows is getting his second opportunity as the Isles face their first bout of real adversity. Captain Anders Lee, who was having a terrific season scoring 12 goals in his first 27 games, is sidelined indefinitely with a lower-body injury. He's been placed on long-term injured reserve, meaning he won't play the rest of the regular season.
"He's the heartbeat of our team, he's one of the best net-front presences in the league," Martin said. "But forget what he does off the ice, it's his composure, he's our leader, the guy we all look to as our rock. It will be an opportunity for other guys to step up and chip in, but we also have a really mature team, and hopefully that helps fill the void."
Martin says the Islanders are used to being counted out. Lee's absence will inevitably ignite another wave of doubters: Will the Islanders be able to muster up enough offense without their captain?
"We have a next-man-up mentality, there's some guys who haven't played yet just waiting for an opportunity," Martin said. "We know if we play within our structure, and we play to our ability, we're going to win on most nights."
In two games played in Lee's absence, Bellows has scored three goals and the Islanders won both games.
Again, it goes back to the Isles' strong team identity, which has been reinforced ever since Trotz and Lamoriello took over ahead of the 2018-19 season. Trotz's arrival instantly shifted the culture in New York.
"He's very detailed, and he's going to hold you accountable -- those are the two biggest things he's changed within our organization," Martin said. "But he also has good composure. In my first stint with the Islanders, before I went to Toronto, we used to get really emotional on the bench, we used to yell and scream at the refs, slam doors, get frustrated. He doesn't really have any time for that, because he doesn't think that's going to help you win games. We're much more composed as a group under Trotzy and Lou."
While we often associate the Islanders with their signature stingy defense (a Trotz hallmark) they don't get enough credit for how dangerous they can be offensively. Their depth is enviable; the Islanders have 12 forwards who have played in at least 10 games and are averaging 10 minutes per game at 5-on-5. According to Natural Stat Trick, New York also ranks second in high-danger goals for percentage at 5-on-5 (63.49%), an area in which they ranked 15th last season.
Martin, who chose to re-sign this offseason in part because he has a defined role on the team's energy line with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck, is having his most productive offensive season as a pro. Martin is actually averaging more goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Alex Ovechkin. But the real star of the offense has been Mathew Barzal, the team's most skilled forward who has sharpened his shot and improved his back-checking for a more complete game.
The 23-year-old Barzal leads the team in points (24) as well as highlight-reel plays:
MAT BARZAL ARE YOU KIDDING WITH THIS GOAL— W W W W W W W W (@IslesMSGN) March 6, 2021
"He takes huge strides in his game every year," Martin said. "He has the ability, with his skating and talent level, to be one of the best players in this game. He wants to be that. You can see that in his work ethic. But he's still so young, he's coming into his prime. Every game, you're seeing him be more and more dangerous with the puck -- which is crazy to say, because he's been dangerous his whole career -- but he's scored more goals coming down the wing, snapping wristers through people's legs, and I think he's trying to shoot the puck more, instead of being more of a distributor. You see the strides he's taken, but also how badly he wants to be one of the best."
Which is exactly where the Islanders are themselves.
Emptying the notebook
1. Artemi Panarin returned to the New York Rangers' lineup this weekend after a two-plus week personal leave. Panarin's absence immediately followed a newspaper report out of Russia in which his former KHL coach alleged the winger physically assaulted a woman in Latvia in 2011. The Rangers were quick to jump to Panarin's defense, calling the allegations false, claiming they were political retribution for Panarin's outspoken support of Russian president Vladimir Putin's opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
The NHL monitored the situation, but there were no corroborating witnesses or evidence, nor was there a police report, and no victim came forward. The KHL told me it was never made aware of the incident. Two of Panarin's 2011 teammates told me the same, with one, Jon Mirasty, coming out explicitly and saying "seems like a hoax to me."
All of it bottles up to be a really strange story. We haven't heard from Panarin himself, and I'm not sure we will. There's still a disconnect for a lot of fans on why the 29-year-old had to take this time apart from the team. Did he really believe his family in Russia was in danger? Was he truly that shaken up? Or is it something else?
I was told, by a source close to Panarin, to not discount injury as one of the reasons he stepped away. Panarin has been dealing with a nagging back injury over the past few seasons, which flared up again this season. He missed two games (both Rangers losses) before returning to the lineup in late February. Perhaps he felt some pressure to return too soon, considering the pressure and microscope the Rangers are under this season. His coach, David Quinn, isn't on the strongest ground. Panarin is unquestionably the team's best player, but it seems he's managing a lot on his plate off the ice this season, too.
2. Patrik Laine's usage is once again a hot topic in Columbus. The Finnish winger was benched for the final 6:53, and all of overtime, in Thursday's loss to the Panthers, a game in which the Blue Jackets blew a 4-1 lead.
"I thought I was playing good, but I guess I thought wrong," said Laine, who broke his seven-game pointless drought with a power-play goal and assist.
I've heard a few people in the league speculate about John Tortorella's future. The coach's contract is up after this season, and although he received a vote of confidence from GM Jarmo Kekalainen, and has led the Blue Jackets to decent success, Tortorella's recent track record isn't great with managing high-level talent. Is his style too grating on Gen Z? (Laine, a 1998 birth date, ushers in this new generation).
I had a really interesting conversation with Columbus captain Nick Foligno about Laine a few weeks ago, which I thought would be good to share here. Laine is known to be blunt, and sometimes doesn't have the best on-ice body language. Both of those traits, Foligno believes, are often misunderstood.
"I find his personality so refreshing," Foligno said. "He cares a lot. I think he gets a bad rep sometimes. He almost cares too much. He's so hard on himself, I think sometimes he causes himself to shut down because it's like, 'I expect more of myself.' He gets a bad rap sometimes, and I think sometimes he paralyzes himself. He's a special player."
Keep an eye on how things play out in Columbus, and note that Laine is a restricted free agent this summer. There's also a chance that Tortorella won't be back.
3. Yes, the Sabres are a dumpster fire. They have no regulation wins in their past 10 games, and are sitting on an ugly minus-30 goal differential. They've been shut out five times this season -- and have only six wins total. Jack Eichel is out for the foreseeable future. The Taylor Hall one-year, prove-it signing was a bust. Jeff Skinner's long-term contract is looking like a serious problem. And they have a rookie GM, Kevyn Adams, calling the shots. Does he have the confidence right now to pull off some franchise-altering moves?
There's no clear path forward for Buffalo. Terry and Kim Pegula are viewed as model franchise owners in the NFL -- and their Bills are one of the league's top contenders -- but in the NHL, their reputation is much different. Perhaps the worst part is this: What the Sabres really need is a full rebuild, which often begins with the draft. But Buffalo made massive cuts to its scouting department during the pandemic and hasn't hired a lot of the positions back. The Sabres haven't had a scouting presence in Russia for the past several years. They don't have a scout in Finland. They also don't have a scout assigned to the WHL or OHL this season (though there's time, as neither of those junior leagues have started their seasons yet). None of this is ideal.
Three stars of the week
Have yourself a week, Leon. The reigning league MVP had six goals (!) and three assists in four games, recording his fourth career hat trick. Whether he's playing on a line with Connor McDavid or not, it's time to accept the Oilers have two legitimate superstars on their team. And they are the two biggest reasons Edmonton is finding success this season.
The Jets picked up five of six possible points this week against the division-leading Maple Leafs. Ehlers put up six points across those three games, scoring three goals and three assists. That includes this nifty assist.
This pass by Nik Ehlers pic.twitter.com/ViDCHq1zMT— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) March 10, 2021
Ehlers is one of the most underappreciated players in the league this season.
We had to do a double-take upon seeing this stat: a player on the Los Angeles Kings had never scored a hat trick against the local rival Anaheim Ducks. Kempe became the first this week (although it came in an overtime loss) and nearly had another two nights later. In total: Kempe's five goals against Ducks goaltender John Gibson over two games is quite good.
What we liked this week
1. Nine of the top 15 goal scorers in the NHL right now are American -- led, of course, by Auston Matthews. It's golden time for hockey in the U.S., heading into next year's Beijing Olympics, which should once again feature NHL players.
2. The Penguins are on a five-game winning streak, lead the NHL with 14 comeback wins, and don't look now, but Cody Ceci might not have been as terrible of a free agent signing as Pittsburgh fans dreaded. Ceci has gone from healthy scratch to one of Pittsburgh's most important top-four blueliners. According to Natural Stat Trick, he has an expected goals-for percentage at even strength of 52.79, tilts the ice at even strength (15 goals for, 10 against) and leads the team in blocked shots.
4. Kirill Kaprizov's arrival is the story of the Minnesota Wild's season, and the Russian winger scored his first NHL hat trick this week. However, there's another rookie that's making a big impact on that roster: Kaapo Kahkonen. The Wild have been excited for Kahkonen, the reigning AHL goaltender of the year, to take the next step. But they didn't expect he'd look this dominant so soon, which is why they signed Cam Talbot in free agency. Kahkonen has taken full control of the net, and has been the best goaltender in the league for about the past month, going 8-0-0 over his past eight starts, with a .940 save percentage and 1.62 goals-against average.
5. It felt great seeing Jonathan Toews making his first "public" appearance since it was announced he's sitting out to start the season as he deals with a mysterious health problem. Toews appeared in a video message congratulating Patrick Kane for reaching 1,000 games.
Here's what Kane had to say after the game: "He's always been one of the first ones to congratulate me or check in throughout the season. We wish he was here. Sometimes things are a little bit more important than hockey, and you've got to be feeling right."
What we didn't like this week
1. According to reporters in Calgary, it was just 34 minutes into Darryl Sutter's first practice running the Flames again that he had the team bag skating. Nature is healing, we suppose?
I've been vocal about my frustration with the NHL's retread problem, but this tweet, from my friend and TSN Montreal radio host, Conor McKenna, made me laugh.
The last NHL game ever aired on ESPN was Tampa-Calgary game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2004. I'm looking forward to millions of American viewers next year being impressed that Darryl Sutter still coaches the Flames.— Conor McKenna (@mckennaconor) March 10, 2021
2. The NHL is looking at changes to the draft lottery. Here's what the proposal looks like, pending approval from the Board of Governors:
Teams would be limited to no more than two lottery wins in a five-year period
Teams would be allowed to jump only 10 spots with a lottery win
A reduction in the number of picks decided by the lottery, from three to two
These amendments -- which, if approved, would take effect in 2022 -- feel triggered by three things:
Everyone fed up by the Oilers' uncanny lottery luck lately
The Red Wings' peril last year in ending up with the No. 4 pick, despite being by far the worst team in the league
"Good" teams like the Rangers in 2020 catapulting everyone to win the lottery
The issue I see is this: the draft lottery is in place, inherently, to prevent tanking. I actually don't think any of these tweaks discourage tanking. If anything, it incentivizes tanking.
3. The Devils recently welcomed fans back in limited capacity, and maybe that can help them get things going at the Prudential Center. New Jersey is now on an 11-game home losing streak, which, according to ESPN Stats & Info's Vincent Masi, ties for the second longest home losing streak of all time. (The 2003-04 Penguins hold the undesirable record of 14).
Top games on tap this week
Note: All times Eastern.
The Battle of Alberta will always be must-see television for me, and here's newly installed Sutter's first chance to experience it again. For Edmonton, we might be seeing the best McDavid has played in his entire career. And that's saying something.
The Isles might be red hot right now, but the team breathing down their neck in the East Division is the Caps, winners of four straight and 8-1-1 in their past 10. The rivalry between these two teams has intensified over the past two seasons, thanks to the Barry Trotz factor.
I love matinee hockey, and yes, Saturday will be a big college basketball day, but we also have five NHL games starting before 4 p.m. ET (including some staggered starts!). This game pits a Stanley Cup contender with a middling start (Colorado) against the team that has blown away all expectations this year (Minnesota). Should be fun.
Social media post of the week
Big week for our company, with the news that Disney/ESPN secured NHL broadcast rights for the next seven seasons beginning with 2021-22.
Aaawwwwwww Sugar Crackers! Your Boy's about to get into Hockey. Yes! HOCKEY!!! Check me out! pic.twitter.com/8Sr4ERzTjS— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) March 11, 2021