With a 6-2 loss in the American League Wild Card Game, the New York Yankees have fallen from grace. The loss marks the 13th year since the Yankees have been to a World Series. While they have only missed the playoffs three times since 2009, New York is not a complacent sports town. There will likely be major front office moves this offseason. With the “Evil Empire” yet again stifled, the New York Islanders have risen to be the best team in the New York market.
The New York Mets have fired Luis Rojas, their fourth manager in five years. This season marked their fifth consecutive losing season, and excessive front office turnover hasn’t helped matters. Last year, the Rangers went through the same turmoil, prompting Jame Dolan to fire his coach, general manager, and team president. The New York football Giants are stuck as a doddering team that underperforms despite having decent talent, and the Jets are rebuilding. Also rebuilding are the Sabres and the Devils, who are years away from contending.
The Knicks, Nets, and Bills made the playoffs in 2020-21, but each team has its warts. The Knicks had a surprisingly successful season, making the postseason for the first time since 2012. They, unfortunately, were easily beaten by the Trae Young-led Hawks in a disappointing first-round upset. The Nets made it to the NBA semi-final, but injuries to their big three in Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant cost them dearly.
Irving is fighting with the league about vaccine regulations this season, leading to speculation that he will be a part-time player this year. That leaves the Bills, who lost to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship last season. This team is considered the only one who is likely to repeat the feat, but they have some inner unrest with rumors swirling they may move out of the Buffalo area.
How Did The Islanders Do It?
In both trips to the Conference Final, the Islanders persevered through tough competition. They were often written off, with most opponents being an on-paper favorite. Critics of the team complain that the Islanders play a very one-dimensional game, where no player is considered a star, and contribution from every line is crucial. They differ from every other team in the New York market because almost every other team has star players that are relied on to produce. The Yankees lineup looks like an All-Star game starting lineup, and even the Sabres have leaned on former captain Jack Eichel through many losing seasons.
Amazingly the Islanders have accomplished more with less. Trotz created a game plan that made every other team rethink how to play the Islanders. The defensive pairing of Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech is one of the best in the league. While they struggled on offense, they remain favorites to win the Metropolitan Division this season. Lamoriello put on the point of emphasis on goaltending. The goalie coach’s help has squeezed out All-Star seasons from Seymon Varlamov and Robin Lehner.
Lamoriello made transactions that filled the Islander lineup with role players. Unlike the Nets, the Isles can still play playoff hockey even if a player misses time with injury. Anders Lee missed the playoffs with a torn Achilles, and Oliver Wahlstrom was injured against the Boston Bruins. Trotz started Leo Komarov on the top line, and the series against the Lightning still went seven games. In the Nets case, Irving and Harden couldn’t play through their injuries. Durant put in a superhuman effort in Game 7 of the Conference Final, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Milwaukee Bucks.
By no means did the Nets make a mistake. Those three together easily make the Nets the best team in the NBA. The decision to sign Durant and Irving, then trade for Harden, brings a bigger risk of flopping because injuries can derail a playoff run. What Nets GM Sean Marks gave up in those transitions is having a productive bench.
Is the Success Sustainable?
In a word, yes. The Islanders have consistently proved doubters wrong. They have more than half the team locked into multi-year contracts. Trotz will not change the team’s strategy for years to come. As neutral as that sounds, it’s not a bad thing. The experience gained from the playoff losses will help the Islanders for future Stanley Cup runs. If we look at Tavares and the Maple Leafs, their playoff struggled is rooted in not playing under pressure. For Trotz and the Islanders, they welcome that atmosphere.
Lamoriello too. He told Brian Compton of NHL.com in 2018, “Individuals win games, but teams win championships.” A mantra that follows him to New York from his three Stanley Cup victories in New Jersey. He looks to institute the same mentality on Long Island.
What separates the Islanders from the other contenders in New York is that they didn’t shell out money to bring in a highly touted free agent. The Rangers have Artemi Panarin; the Knicks have Kemba Walker; the Mets have Fransico Lindor; the list goes on and on. After losing a Heart Trophy candidate in Tavares, the Islanders were able to build a contending team from their farm system. They proved that the Conference Final run in 2019-20 wasn’t a fluke by repeating it last season. If this team can stay healthy and consistent, they close the gap on a Cup favorite like Tamp Bay.Embed from Getty Images