New York Islanders: The Cinderella Story of this NHL Season

The New York Islanders were projected to be one of the worst teams in hockey by most analysts and fans. Two weeks ago, they swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the NHL Playoffs.

The hate and disrespect of the Isles ran rampant before the 2018-2019 NHL Season began. Some sportsbooks had the Islanders at +10000 odds to win the Stanley Cup, with a $100 bet netting a return of $10,000. Deadspin published an article titled, “A 2018–19 NHL Season Preview Of Every Team, From Best To Islanders.” Lauren Theisen, the writer of the piece, went on to say “Will they [Islanders] get better? They’re f—ed.”

To be fair, the contempt of the Islanders was warranted.  As Sam McCaig of The Hockey News put it, “They won a grand total of one playoff round in nine seasons with John Tavares. It’s not going to get any better without him.”

John Tavares was the most hyped draft prospect of all-time.

Growing up in Toronto, Tavares joined the GTHL at the age of 14. Although one of the youngest players ever to play junior hockey, ‘JT’ showcased his elite level of play from day one, tallying 91 goals and 67 assists (158 points) in only 72 games. The next step up for John was the OHL, where he broke practically every scoring record possible. When the Islanders selected him first overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Long Island was buzzing. Tavares delivered elite center play for his nine seasons as an Islander, proving to be one of the most productive captains in New York Islanders history.

When his contract was set to expire at the end of last season, Islander fans were not worried, as their captain said all the right things. In an interview with a Toronto based radio station, Tavares said:

I would love for [my Islander career] to continue for the long haul. I think you see how some of the greatest players in the game have been able to spend their entire career somewhere. I hope I’m in that same position.”

When asked about a potential return “home” to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, he said that he “would not count on that”. It came as a shock to the entire hockey world when Tavares signed with the Maple Leafs the next season, sending Islander fans into hysterics. The NHL had just seen the biggest free agent signing in its history, and the Isles received zero compensation.

In his first return to Long Island as a Leaf, Isles fans responded accordingly…

The Islanders had lost their face of the franchise on the ice, but off-ice acquisitions proved to be worth every penny.

The story of the 2017-2018 season was obviously the Washington Capitals, winning their first Stanley Cup as an organization. It was also the first Cup victory for the now legendary Capitals coach, Barry Trotz. It was a surprise to the entire league when Trotz announced his desire for a new challenge just weeks after the conclusion of the season. Trotz decided that the Islanders were the perfect challenge, and signed on as the Isles coach the very same month.

By the end of this year, Trotz’s first year at the helm, the Islanders put together their best season since the glory days of the early 1980’s. The team was ready to prove the haters wrong, the only question was: Where would they play their home playoff games?

Not many professional sports franchises have to ask themselves this question, especially in the playoffs. To simplify an incredibly complicated and controversial topic, against the opinion of their fans, the Islanders moved from the iconic Nassau Coliseum to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2015. Backlash against the move has caused the Islanders to split their home games between the two arenas in recent seasons. Regardless of fan opinion, this year’s Islanders played about the same at both stadiums, winning twelve times at both buildings. With this in mind though, public opinion was still obvious: “The Barclays Center is newer, sleeker and has the better food options. Nassau Coliseum has the history

Although the Islanders played about the same between their two home venues, there was a clear attendance disparity

A decision had to be made for the location of Islander playoff games, and to the jubilation of seemingly all of Long Island, the first round was to be played in Nassau County, and not in Brooklyn. The Islanders faced off against the Penguins, winning both games at home and sweeping Pittsburgh 4-0 in the Best of 7.

The day after the Islanders’ sweep, the NHL released a statement:

“Should the team qualify for further rounds of the playoffs, any home Islanders games will take place at Barclays Center, reflecting that the Nassau Coliseum does not qualify as an NHL major league facility.”

The Islanders faced the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round of the Playoffs, playing their home games at the Barclays Center. The Isles lost the first two games of the series on their “home ice”, and were eventually swept themselves by the Canes.

The New York Islanders have a problem on their hands, and surprisingly, it isn’t the loss of John Tavares.

Posted in NHL