Wyshynski: Why the Islanders will win the Stanley Cup

NHL News

The New York Islanders are going to win the 2022 Stanley Cup.

“Please God, no,” wrote reader “Hockey Island,” whose Twitter profile includes an image of the team’s previous four championship banners from the 1980s.

People like Mr. Island understand that my predicting the Stanley Cup winner is usually the kiss of death to their championship aspirations. I declared the Toronto Maple Leafs would win the Cup last season, and that toxic smooch resulted in their captain, John Tavares, being felled by an errant knee cap in Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs blowing (another) 3-1 lead and getting eliminated in the first round for the fifth straight season.

“Don’t do it Greg. Please.”

I’m sorry. The bell that has been rung cannot be unrung. I believe the Islanders are going to win the Stanley Cup, and all that it entails.

“Do I agree with you that they’re going to win the Cup? I’m not so sure,” said Ken Daneyko, a defenseman who played 20 years in the NHL. “But you’re not the only one. And why not? Maybe they take the next step.”

I called Daneyko to bounce a theory off him. The more I looked at the 2021-22 New York Islanders, the more I thought about another team that general manager Lou Lamoriello constructed: the 1995 New Jersey Devils, a team on which Daneyko played.

Scourge of offensive hockey. Meticulously cobbled from homegrown talents and acquired veterans in the image of its GM. Above all else, a Stanley Cup champion.

Like the Devils before 1995, the Islanders have been on the cusp of greatness, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in consecutive conference finals. Last season, the margin between an appearance in the Cup Final and elimination was a Yanni Gourde shorthanded goal in Game 7, which is a “Paul Sorvino slicing garlic in prison during ‘Goodfellas’ thin” margin.

“They haven’t quite had enough offensive talent to get them over the top. But he believes that you stick to the philosophy,” Daneyko said. “Look, this team lost 1-0 in Tampa Bay in Game 7 of their series. They got outplayed in the series, but they almost damn well won.”

Like most Lamoriello teams, it starts with defense, and in 1995 and in 2021 that started with the coach. Barry Trotz doesn’t have the same vendetta against offensive exhilaration that Jacques Lemaire had, but his system can be just as stifling: The Islanders are the best defensive team in the NHL (2.46 goals per game) during the coach’s tenure with the team.

Neither Semyon Varlamov nor Ilya Sorokin are Martin Brodeur, but together they’re the best tandem in the NHL. The forward position is a potpourri of playmakers asked to make plays (Mathew Barzal, Kyle Palmieri, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier), others asked to role play (Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Zach Parise) and a thumping fourth line that can also contribute offensively now and again. (Casey Cizikas, like Bobby Holik in 1995, is sandwiched between two sides of beef.)

“If you look at their roster, there’s some similarities to be sure,” Daneyko said. “Look, obviously times change. And you have people today who say you can’t build teams like you did 25 years ago. But as we see come playoff time, the more things change, the more they stay the same, am I right? Structure, discipline, goaltending. It’s hard to play against. Blocking that extra shot. Playing the man. That’s what he’s built there, and it’s similar to what we had. It’s a good analogy. Relatively good comparison.”

But not a perfect one.

“If I’m being brutally honest: They’re good, but they don’t have the horses we had on the back end,” he said.

This is true. No offense intended to Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, but they are not Scott Niedermayer nor Scott Stevens.

But that’s OK! Lamoriello teams are not about the parts, but about the sum of them.

“They get more out of less than any team in the league. That’s not to knock them. That’s the same thing people said about us in 1995. The reason Lou gets that is the player buy-in. It’s easier said than done. It’s the hardest thing in the world,” Daneyko said.

I’m buying in, too. Sure, they’re too old in some spots and not good enough in others. Even though their floor is higher than some teams’ ceilings, I’ve seen some predictions that have the Islanders missing the playoffs entirely. But this team has been close. Really close. I’ve seen Lamoriello simmer and spice the gravy until it’s ready to serve before, and I’m getting the same aroma this season.

And it would be a heck of a way to christen their new arena.

A Stanley Cup parade around the track at Belmont. Yay … or neigh?

Here are the rest of my standings predictions that were submitted before opening night, with some airtight, logical justifications. Playoff teams are bolded. Please enjoy the prognostications, which naturally will become immaterial the moment Jack Eichel lands on a contender.

Metropolitan Division

New York Islanders
Pittsburgh Penguins
New York Rangers
Carolina Hurricanes

Washington Capitals
New Jersey Devils
Philadelphia Flyers
Columbus Blue Jackets

The Metro is basically the Islanders up top, the Blue Jackets on the bottom and then six deeply flawed teams that are going to produce two to three playoff berths.

I’m done counting the Penguins out as a playoff team because they’re missing Evgeni Malkin for months or because their window as a Cup winner is closed. They just keep finding a way; heck, were it not for Playoff Tristan Jarry, the Islanders were cooked in the first round against Pittsburgh. (Regular Season Tristan Jarry is just fine, for the record.) Instead, I think it’s the Capitals that miss this time, unless they do something to rectify their goaltending, which isn’t good, behind a defense that’s also becoming increasingly average.

Goaltending and defense are the reasons I like the Rangers to qualify, with the hope that Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko both take the next step to offset the overcorrection to physicality by GM Tom Wilson, er, Chris Drury. Dougie Hamilton‘s departure knocks the Hurricanes down a couple of notches and elevates the Devils, for whom he now plays. I don’t think the Devils are quite there yet as far as offensive depth — wait till next year.

As for the Flyers … your guess is as good as mine. I’m a believer in Carter Hart reverting back to franchise goalie form, especially with Ryan Ellis filling that Matt Niskanen-shaped hole on defense. But then Martin Jones plays when Hart doesn’t. There’s just something off about the overall mix. The Flyers theoretically should be on the upswing, doing this “even numbered playoff seasons” thing since 2012, like they’re “Star Trek” movies. But eventually you get “Insurrection” followed by “Nemesis.”

Atlantic Division

Toronto Maple Leafs
Tampa Bay Lightning
Florida Panthers
Boston Bruins

Montreal Canadiens
Detroit Red Wings
Ottawa Senators
Buffalo Sabres

If rookie Spencer Knight is as good as we expect and Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t as bad as we expect, the Panthers and Leafs could flip-flop here. But if Toronto’s good at anything, it’s excelling in the regular season, so we couldn’t in good faith not cede the Leafs the division.

I’m convinced the Lightning are never winning another division title again under Jon Cooper. They run away with it, they lose to the Blue Jackets in the first round. The faced adversity (such as it was) in finishing second and third, and win the Cup in two straight seasons. I don’t think they win a third straight because there’s no replacing the checking line (Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Yanni Gourde) that scattered in free agency and the expansion draft.

The losses of David Krejci and (for now) Tuukka Rask will be felt by the Bruins in the postseason, but they’re still more talented than the Montreal Canadiens and the three also-rans to earn a playoff berth. For what it’s worth, I think the Red Wings are the best out of the basement, especially if Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider and Alex Nedeljkovic have a transformative effect on the rest of the roster.

Central Division

Colorado Avalanche
Winnipeg Jets
Minnesota Wild
St. Louis Blues

Dallas Stars
Nashville Predators
Chicago Blackhawks
Arizona Coyotes

A word about the Avalanche, who are obviously going to win this division: I’m not sold on their bottom six, I’m not sold on their goaltending and I’m not sure the fiery rage of postseason frustration they’re feeling after three straight second-round losses is a sufficient replacement for understanding what needs to be done to push into a championship round for the first time since 2002.

I love Winnipeg, not only as a regular-season force but potentially as the third-best option beyond Colorado and Vegas to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Great top six, better defense, second-best goalie on the planet in Connor Hellebuyck. The Wild should be fine, and perhaps better than fine if their goaltending can play up to the standards of the defense in front of it. But they’re cooked if anything happens to Kirill Kaprizov — either injury or post-contract regression.

I’ve seen some people nudge the Blues out of the playoffs in favor of Dallas, and I don’t see it. Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich make this a better team, and a healthy Colton Parayko makes all the difference. Jordan Binnington has become the Toronto Maple Leafs of goaltenders, as one look at his past two postseasons would confirm. I don’t trust the Stars’ health or their goaltending — although a return of Ben Bishop to the crease and prominence could undo this prognostication.

The Predators are the very definition of “there,” and could slip further down the standings if it turns out Juuse Saros needed the twin motivations of winning Pekka Rinne‘s job and playing for a new contract to excel like he did last season. They’ll continue to exist in that purgatory between contending and rebuilding, which is what happens when you commit $16 million against the cap to two underperforming centers, I guess.

I want Chicago to be good, because the league is more fun when it’s not an afterthought on the ice. The Blackhawks just aren’t deep enough, and Marc-Andre Fleury can work only so many miracles behind a porous defensive system overseen by a coach who could be the first casualty of the season. And hey, look, the Coyotes finally relocated.

Pacific Division

Vegas Golden Knights
Edmonton Oilers
Seattle Kraken
Vancouver Canucks

Calgary Flames
Anaheim Ducks
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks

I think the Islanders defeat Vegas in the Stanley Cup Final and Trotz becomes the most hated coach for Golden Knights fans outside of Pete DeBoer. I’m curious to see how Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner handles the weight of being The Guy, but the team in front of him is so good. The Golden Knights aren’t so much interested in winning as they are in demolishing opponents, and I love that.

The Oilers’ Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could drag a team made up of me, you and a shooter tutor to a Pacific Division playoff berth. Picking the Kraken for the playoffs was contingent on them getting enough scoring from their defense in front of outstanding goaltending, because I’m not entirely confident in the forwards generating enough of it.

The final spot came down to the Canucks or the Flames. While I’m sure Darryl Sutter is going to make Calgary a better team in front of Jacob Markstrom, it still feels like a franchise teetering on the brink of an overhaul — perhaps in the form of a Jack Eichel trade? I think a healthy Canucks team gets a bit of its swagger back, and Thatcher Demko papers over a slightly improved but still deeply flawed blue line.

As for the California teams, I think the Ducks could hit the sweet spot between the veterans and the kids the Kings have been preparing themselves to hit. Consider this a hedged bet that Anaheim eventually ends up with Eichel. Or that John Gibson lifts a mediocre team in the standings for, like, the fifth time in his career. As for San Jose … well, at least it will get a nice return for Tomas Hertl at the trade deadline.

There you go. The 2021-22 NHL standings’ order of finish, as seen after the last game of the regular season. Act accordingly.

Three moments from opening night(s)

1. How great was T.J. Oshie‘s reaction to Hendrix Lapierre‘s first NHL goal for the Capitals?

Tossing his gloves into the air like he won the Stanley Cup. Deadlifting the 19-year-old off the ice. I asked Oshie if he ever lifted a teammate into the air like that before.

“No, honestly, I don’t know what was going on. I knew it was his first one, I was super excited, and I just thought the celebration would’ve been better with him on his feet,” he said. “I like to think I curled him up there, but I think he helped me out a little bit on the way up. It was just a great moment. You could see not only me, but the other guys on the ice and everyone on the bench were just super happy for him.”

2. I’ve seen the Vegas Golden Knight use his sword to cut a jet in half when the team played Winnipeg and bisect a Washington “Weagle” before a game against the Capitals. But with the Seattle Kraken coming to town, it wasn’t enough to just cut it up like it was fresh Tako. No, the Knight needed to do this:

He burned the squid to death as the fans chanted “Go Knights go!” And they said hockey would never work in the desert.

3. As we all predicted, Jack Johnson scored the first goal of the season for the Colorado Avalanche on a breakaway against Marc-Andre Fleury:

So can any defenseman join the Avalanche, get within a few feet of Cale Makar and suddenly gain the ability to do this?

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Alex Ovechkin

It’s not often you see a player go from a game-time decision to scoring two goals and passing a Hockey Hall of Famer for fifth on the all-time NHL ranking. “I just enjoy my time. Of course, it’s a huge privilege being on that list, but as I say all the time: Game-by-game, day-by-day,” he said.

Next player for Alex the Great to conquer: Brett Hull in fourth, at 741 goals.

Loser: New York Rangers

The Rangers were the victim of Ovechkin’s historic opening night, losing 5-1 to the Capitals. They dressed four players who play with an aggressive edge — including Ryan Reaves — but there was no assault on Tom Wilson for his injuring Artemi Panarin last season. (Maybe the presence of NHL leadership, and the warnings presented to the teams by the league, were enough to discourage it.)

The opening night game was the worst fears about this team having been manifested: They overcorrected their roster after the Wilson incident, opting for physicality instead of skill. The Rangers looked formless, an indiscernible mishmash of clashing styles. They need to figure out who they are. Or at least what they should be.

Winner: Mika Zibanejad

The talented center got a huge money deal from the Rangers: eight years and $68 million, with full no-movement protection. If he can recapture the pre-pandemic magic, this deal could be a bargain for the team.

Loser: Jack Eichel

Nothing is set in stone, but given the Rangers’ salary commitments that are already on the books or will be soon (like Adam Fox), it appears they’ve taken themselves out of the Jack Eichel derby. The longer the process plays out, the fewer suitors there appear to be.

Winner: Charles Barkley

Sir Charles appeared to have to the time of his life popping on TNT’s opening night telecast. The highlight was the Round Mound of Rebound putting on Pekka Rinne‘s old gear (!) and taking on Wayne Gretzky in a shootout — and he even made a save! We need the other half of this culture exchange: Paul Bissonnette trying to score in the paint against Shaq.

Loser: Marc-Andre Fleury

Welcome to Chicago, Flower. The Vezina winner had a -0.34 goals saved above average in the opening night loss to Colorado, and Fleury got an eyeful of the inefficient defensive system he’s stuck behind this season. Good luck.

Winner: Explaining the rules

I love the trend this season of having retired NHL referees at the ready to explain the rules and analyze controversial plays, like ESPN’s own Dave Jackson. The NFL has used this gimmick well to enhance broadcasts, and the NHL has needed it for years.

Loser: Misinterpreting the rules

Look, I love the Kraken and you love the Kraken. But they weren’t jobbed by this “kick” by Vegas center Chandler Stephenson. The ruling was consistent with others the league has made on “kicked” goals. There was nothing wrong with this goal, either within the letter of the law or spiritually. Save your tears for another day, Seattle.

Winner: Hockey on TV

How great is it to have two networks — including the ESPN family — pouring creativity and resources and ingenuity into presenting hockey on TV? Best of luck to our friends at Turner this season. And a huge shoutout to all the ESPN people in front of and behind the cameras who helped make the NHL’s re-debut on the network an absolute blockbuster.

Puck headlines

From your friends at ESPN

Thanks to those of you that watched The Drop, my new digital show with Arda Ocal. Where anything can happen … including Gritty hacking the feed:

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