Back in May, when New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow decided to keep his first-round pick and give his 2015 selection to the Sabres, folks in Buffalo figured that was just fine. Although New York had the No. 5 overall pick, many assumed the Islanders would remain bottom feeders and give Buffalo a high lottery chance for the most anticipated draft in years.
Then the games started. New York won its first four. It increased to six of the first eight, then ballooned to 16 of the opening 22.
The Islanders haven’t slowed down. They visit the Sabres and First Niagara Center on Saturday with a 23-11 record that has them second overall in the Eastern Conference.
What in the name of Mike Bossy and Denis Potvin is going on?
The Islanders have learned how to win with impressive young forwards, improved goaltending and an influx of accomplished defensemen. Former first-round picks Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome have joined holdovers John Tavares and Kyle Okposo atop the scoring list, while Jaroslav Halak has solidified the crease with trade-acquisitions Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk skating in front of him.
“This is a good hockey team,” Montreal coach Michel Therrien said this week. “They ended up picking up three important pieces of the puzzle with two solid defensemen and a goalie. They play with confidence, and they’ve got a lot of skill.”
The Islanders have seen improvement across the board in the major categories:
• Their goals per game have risen from 2.63 to 2.91, which ranks seventh overall.
• Their goals allowed have dropped from 3.18 to 2.76. Last year’s mark was third from the bottom.
• Their shots per game have jumped from 30.9 to 32.7, while the shots allowed have been cut from 30.0 to 27.8.
The biggest difference is New York is winning the close ones. The Islanders are 15-2-0 in one-goal games, a .882 winning percentage that is tops in the NHL. They were 25th last season at .442 (19-13-11).
Though this year’s percentage is not sustainable - the top numbers from the last five full seasons ranged from .659 to .735 - winning breeds confidence. In hockey, confidence is of utmost importance.
“We’re doing some good things, and we believe in ourselves,” Tavares said earlier this season. “You can see the poise and composure we have now.”
Tavares, whose 2013-14 season was cut short by knee surgery, is near his usual point-per-game pace. He has 13 goals and 29 points in 34 games. Okposo, who had a team-best 27 goals and 69 points last season, is tied with Tavares for the team points lead and has 21 assists.
Nelson and Strome’s maturation has made a big difference.
Nelson, a 2010 first-round pick who turned 23 in October, has shown the scoring touched he honed in college and the American Hockey League. After putting up 14 goals and 26 points in 72 games as a rookie, Nelson already has 14 goals and 27 points in 34 games.
The ascension of Strome, selected with the No. 5 overall pick in 2011, has come even quicker. The 21-year-old scored 97 goals during his final three seasons of junior hockey and put up 13 goals and 49 points in 37 AHL games last season. He had seven goals and 18 points in 37 outings after being called up, and he has improved the pace with six goals and 21 points in 34 games.
While the goals are obviously nice, the decrease in tallies in New York’s zone is even better. Halak is deserving of the credit.
The goalie was a member of the Sabres for a few days last season before being traded to Washington with a third-round pick for Michal Neuvirth and defenseman Rostislav Klesla, who never reported to Buffalo. The Isles signed Halak to a four-year, $18 million deal after watching Evgeni Nabokov, Kevin Poulin and Andres Nilsson reek in the crease.
The Isles’ team save percentage last season was a paltry .894. Halak is at .919, allowing him to start 18-6 with a 2.24 goals-against average.
Leddy and Boychuk have changed the Isles on and off the ice. New York picked up the Stanley Cup winners from cap-strapped Chicago and Boston, respectively, less than a week before the season opener.
The 23-year-old Leddy has 15 points and is plus-8 after playing every game for the Blackhawks the previous three seasons. Boychuk has 14 points and is plus-6 after five seasons playing in Boston’s top four.
While New York’s rise is a disappointment to Sabres fans, it’s easy to see why the Islanders already have four winning streaks of four games or more after only one such run last season.
“I’m not surprised by their success,” said Montreal forward and former Islander P-A Parenteau. “They’ve been rebuilding over the last couple of years now. ... They’re a good team.”