How Lamoriello shaped underdog Islanders into Cup contenders
New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello was announced as a finalist for the NHL’s 2020-21 Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award on Thursday and not a soul in the hockey world was surprised.
What the 78-year-old has done to help turnaround the storied franchise from its doldrums is an impressive, feel-good story that has the Islanders once again just a handful of wins away from an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Islanders had only won a single playoff series in the 25 seasons prior to Lamoriello joining the organization in 2018 after three years spent helping rebuild the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Isles have won five playoff series (plus an additional play-in series) so far in the Lamoriello era, which is more than the previous three decades combined. In fact, the defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning – who currently have a 2-1 series lead heading into Saturday’s semi-final Game 4 against the Islanders – are the only team with more playoff wins in the past three seasons.
In many ways, turning the Islanders around wasn’t as daunting a task as the one he faced in Toronto where he needed to retool the core of the roster. On Long Island, most key pieces, including the reigning Calder Memorial Trophy winner Mathew Barzal, were already in place.
CHANGING THE CULTURE
The first dominoes to fall were then-GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight, both of whom were let go shortly after Lamoriello came on board – although Snow remained in the organization in an advisory role.
For Lamoriello, who was initially brought on solely as president of hockey operations before taking over as GM, a culture change meant more than merely demanding: No more hippie hair and beards on the ice!
“It’s my opinion that at this point there’s a culture change that is needed, and there’s new voices needed in different areas,” Lamoriello told reporters at the time. “Culture is a very overused word and underdeveloped. It’s doing little things a certain way, a different way, a consistent way.”
This philosophy helped the Hockey Hall of Famer facilitate three Stanley Cup championships during his time with the New Jersey Devils.
“Whether that’s having short hair and clean facial hair throughout the regular season or details on the ice like changing hard coming out of the bench, practicing hard, just being a pro,” Barzal said earlier this month via Newsday’s Neil Best. “Whether you’re going out for dinner on the road or coming to the airplane, you have to be a pro 24/7.”
FINDING THE RIGHT LEADERSHIP
Lamoriello’s first and most impactful addition was hiring Barry Trotz, who had just led the Washington Capitals to that franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship.
The Capitals were reluctant to give Trotz the lucrative, long-term contract extension he sought (and deserved), so the bench boss resigned. As soon as Lamoriello learned this he picked up the phone and within several days the Islanders had a new coach.
“It’s good to be wanted,” Trotz said after his dramatic team switch.
The Islanders finished the previous season 35-37-10 and missed the playoffs yet again. Trotz helped guide the Islanders to a 48-26-8 record in 2018-19 and won the Jack Adams Award for his inaugural season with the team.
“I don’t know what there isn’t there to appreciate about Barry,” Lamoriello told Sportsnet 590 earlier this month.
Convincing Trotz to lead this group was an intrinsic part of turning around the franchise, however Lamoriello’s transactions have clearly coincided with the team’s success.
ADDING ROLE PLAYERS
Losing franchise centre and longtime Maple Leafs bedsheet aficionado, John Tavares, on the open market was certainly not an ideal way for Lamoriello to begin his first free agency period with his new team. Despite losing No. 91, to his former team no less, Lamoriello adapted on the fly and began making subtle roster tweaks that have paid off better than many expected they would.
One mark of an impressive team or athlete can be this: their opponents know exactly what they’re going to do or how they’re going to play yet they can’t do anything to stop it.
The Islanders are not a flashy team, they don’t light the lamp at will, but they forecheck, backcheck, play disciplined, get in shooting and passing lanes, roll four lines and frustrate opposing teams on a nightly basis.
Much of that credit goes to Trotz for implementing a team system the group fully bought into. Many of the initial moves Lamoriello made were to support Trotz’s system.
He added bottom-six forwards Leo Komarov and former Islanders fan favourite Matt Martin – Komarov as a free agent, Martin in a trade for AHL/ECHL player Eamon McAdam. Lamoriello got to know the pair during his stint in Toronto and knew what they were capable of.
“He understands building a roster,” Trotz recently said via New York Post’s Larry Brooks. “There will be a Player A and Player B and the values that a lot of people might put on a certain player because it’s the sexy thing to do, he understands the intrinsic value of a player in tough games and in the locker room and as a teammate and as a pro. All the stuff that you really don’t put a lot of numbers to, everything he does is very thorough and has substance to it. It’s not lacy, fancy stuff. It’s real stuff and he puts a lot of value in that.”
That same summer Lamoriello retained RFAs Brock Nelson, Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews, added additional grit in the form of Ross Johnston and Tom Kühnhackl and upgraded the goalie (more on that below).
The following year he extended Nelson to the tunes of six years and $36 million, gave RFA Anthony Beauvillier a team-friendly bridge deal, and inked captain Anders Lee to a seven-year, $49-million contract.
During the 2019-20 campaign he traded for Devils captain Andy Greene to add more veteran leadership. Eight days later he acquired Jean-Gabriel Pageau from the Ottawa Senators and promptly signed him to a six-year, $30-million extension. Pageau has been a tremendous addition to the team.
Prior to the start of the 2020-21 season, Toews was sent to Colorado for a pair of second-round picks and at the trade deadline Lamoriello made another splash by adding impact rental forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, the latter of whom he drafted back in 2004 with the Devils.
None of the moves above would be considered blockbusters or jaw-droppers but they’ve worked out in the team’s favour.
BUILDING FROM THE NET OUT
The Islanders had allowed a league-worst 3.57 goals per game in 2017-18 – the worst team GAA in the NHL since the 2006-07 Flyers.
“I do know with Barry’s style and philosophy – we both have that – that’s not going to be too difficult to take care of,” Lamoriello said ahead of the 2018-19 season.
Lamoriello often builds his teams from the net out. He benefitted from having Martin Brodeur for two decades in New Jersey, also trading for Cory Schneider with the Devils. When he was with the Maple Leafs, one of his biggest moves was trading for Frederik Andersen.
After moving on from Jaroslav Halak in the summer of 2018, the team signed Robin Lehner who had spent three frustrating seasons with the Buffalo Sabres.
Lehner signed for one year and $1.5 million. He and Thomas Greiss went on to share the William M. Jennings Trophy after the Islanders allowed a league-best 2.33 goals per game. Lehner also won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy and finished third in Vezina Trophy voting for his lone season on Long Island.
Lehner was replaced with Semyon Varlamov on a reasonable four-year deal the following summer. The Varlamov/Greiss tandem were ninth in team GAA one season ago and in 2020-21 Varlamov and fellow Russian Ilya Sorokin allowed the second-fewest goals in the league. Sorokin is an RFA this summer but appears to have No. 1 potential.
It’s too early to judge whether or not Lamoriello has done a sufficient job drafting players with the Islanders. Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson, whom he selected with the 11th-and 12th-overall picks, respectively, in the 2018 NHL Draft are the only draftees of his to play games so far. Both have been effective at times when in the lineup this season.
The full scope of Lamoriello’s impact on the team won’t be fully known for years, but the short-term turnaround sure is something to marvel at.