Capitals

Comparing the 2018 Capitals to the 2021 Islanders

Capitals
Barry Trotz

Barry Trotz has done it again. The New York Islanders dispatched the Boston Bruins on Wednesday to advance to the NHL semifinals for the second straight season.

No one expected much from the Islanders heading into the postseason, but they are the last team standing in the East Division and now are four wins away from the Stanley Cup Final and eight wins away from the Stanley Cup.

Considering he led the Capitals to a Stanley Cup in 2018, it is natural to want to compare that team to the 2021 Islanders to see how similar they are and how much Trotz is leaning into the same script to find success. The fact is, however, that those two teams are not comparable.

The Islanders are an enigma. They are a team that consistently proves that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, there may be minor similarities here and there, but really, the only thing to link the 2018 Caps to the 2021 Islanders is the man behind the bench. Otherwise, the success New York is having is something entirely different.

You can first see the difference between the two teams when you compare the rosters. On paper, the Caps were better. There's no debate.

In terms of superstar talent, Washington was much more top-heavy with players like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson. While all teams need depth scoring in the playoffs, with their collection of talent, the Caps don't find success offensively without their top players being their top players.

 

Ovechkin set a franchise record for goals in a single postseason with 15, just four shy of the all-time league record. Kuznetsov, meanwhile, tallied 32 points in 24 games.

The Islanders' offensive success is much more by committee. The only superstar the team boasts is Mathew Barzal and he has not even been their best player. Through two rounds, he has three goals and six assists. His nine points ranks tied for fifth on the team.

The Caps needed depth scoring to supplement their offense and they got it with key contributions from players like Lars Eller (seven goals including the Game 3 overtime winner over Columbus and the Cup-clinching goal), Devante Smith-Pelly (seven goals), Andre Burakovsky (two goals in Game 7 against Tampa Bay) and Brooks Orpik (first game-winning Stanley Cup Final goal in team history). For the Islanders, however, spreading the wealth is just how their offense operates. You can't key on any one player or one line.

But the real strength of the Islanders since Trotz took over has been defense. Team defense to be more specific. Just as with the offense, there is no superstar player on the blue line. And yet, no team has allowed fewer goals per game in the past three seasons than Trotz's Islanders.

In 2018, defense was Washington's biggest question mark heading into the postseason and, if not for the acquisition of Michal Kempny at the trade deadline and a change in tactics to the neutral-zone trap, it probably would have been their downfall. Kempny, however, shored up the blue line and, after starting Philipp Grubauer the first two games, Braden Holtby came in and was brilliant for the rest of the postseason.

One defensive similarity between the Caps and Islanders is how useless their style of play makes Corsi.

In 2018, Washington entered the postseason with the philosophy that shot quality is more important than shot volume, which flies in the face of modern analytics that suggests teams with more possession -- in other words, more shot attempts -- have more success.

In 2021, New York allows more shots on goal per game (37.7) than any of the other teams remaining in the playoffs. The Islanders also manage only 29.9 shots on goal per game. Tampa Bay actually shoots less with 29.1 shots on goal per game, but a team with players like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point can afford to do that. And yet, it is New York with more goals per game (3.58 vs. 3.45) so far in the postseason. 

No one who watches the 2018 Caps and the 2021 Islanders is going to mistake the two teams. They were built differently, they play differently and they found success differently. The only real similarity between these two teams is Trotz and even that is under different circumstances.

Heading into the 2018 postseason, Trotz had failed to lead Washington past the second round just like every other coach after the team's 1998 run to the final. By Year 4 in 2018, it was fair to doubt whether Trotz could be the guy to get the Caps over the hump  In New York, however, there has never been any doubt as to the quality of coach he is.

 

Trotz was named the head coach on Long Island in 2018 and took over the worst defensive team in the NHL, a team that had one playoff series win since 1993 and that lost its best player, John Tavares, in the offseason.

Maybe it was the fact that Trotz was coming in after winning a Stanley Cup, but the buy-in was immediate and has been unwavering since.

What the Islanders do does not work without every player on the ice pulling in the same direction. You can say that about most teams, but...can you actually? Sometimes superstar players can just be superstars and carry a team for a game, for a season and sometimes even in a playoff series.

The Islanders don't have that and have not had that since Trotz took over. They have a roster that does not stack up to most other playoff teams and can only find success by sticking to the system. And that's exactly what they do. They play Trotz's structure to an unwavering degree, keeping offenses to the perimeter, blocking shots, dominating the net-front and staying out of the penalty box.

The Caps have the talent to stray from that system and still win, at times, but you can still see how much better they were in 2018 when they were forced to focus and play strictly within the system.

In Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington was without Backstrom and Tom Wilson. In a game in which Pittsburgh faced elimination, Washington allowed only 22 shots on goal and one goal.

When facing elimination in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning after three straight losses, the Caps played what many consider to be the best playoff game in the history of the franchise. They manhandled the Lightning, physically knocking them around the ice. They limited an offensive juggernaut to 24 shots on goal and Holtby earned the shutout. The game remained close thanks to Andrei Vasilevskiy, but once he was beaten in the second period, it was over. Washington was not going to lose that game.

The physical punishment the Caps delivered carried over into Game 7 as a weary Tampa Bay went out with a whimper in a 4-0 defeat.

Those games had similar looks to the style the Islanders play now, just with a more talented roster in Washington.

But really, the only carryover is Trotz.

While there were times it felt like Washington would never get over the hump, Trotz still won at least one playoff series every year he was behind the bench in Washington. The same is true now in New York where Trotz has won five playoff series in three years. 

A great coach is not just able to find success, but able to find success in different situations. The Islanders certainly have that in Trotz, who also took the Nashville Predators to the second round twice during his long tenure there. We will see how far his style gets New York in 2021.

 

The Islanders and Lightning begin their league semifinal series on Sunday at 3 p.m. on NBC.