Lamoriello blueprint has made Islanders Cup contenders

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Tied 2-2 with the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into Game 5 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Semifinals at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS), the Islanders have some work remaining to reach the level of Devils, who won the Stanley Cup in 1995, 2000 and 2003 and also reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2001 and 2012 with Lamoriello as their GM. But the formula, with a commitment to a defensive foundation supported by a balanced offense, is essentially the same.

“Lou’s the architect of the three championships in Jersey, so, of course, there’s going to be similarities as far as how they play,” said John MacLean, who won the Cup twice with the Devils, as a player in 1995 and as an assistant coach in 2003. “Lou is always the first guy to say he puts a lot of things in place there and it’s a credit to the players that they want that.”

Lamoriello, a 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and a finalist for the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award for the second straight season after winning it last season, inherited the majority of the Islanders roster from previous GM Garth Snow when he took over in 2018. But Lamoriello shaped the roster into the mix of skill, grit and character he believes in by adding key players including goalie Semyon Varlamov, defenseman Andy Greene and forwards Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Matt Martin (reacquired), Leo Komarov, Kyle Palmieri, and Travis Zajac.

And he brought in a Cup-winning coach to show them how to win. 

Monday is the three-year anniversary of Lamoriello hiring Barry Trotz, who was unable to agree on new contract with the Washington Capitals and resigned after coaching them to their first championship in 2018.

“The first thing is, [Lamoriello] goes out and gets the best coach at all cost,” said Ken Daneyko, a defenseman who was on each of the Devils’ Cup-winning teams. “Did he not do with that with the Devils with Jacques Lemaire? He wanted a winner.”

Like Lemaire, who won the Stanley Cup eight times as a player and twice as an executive with the Montreal Canadien before joining the Devils in 1993 and coaching them to the Cup in 1995, Trotz brought with him a winning pedigree that commanded respect and produced immediate results.

In the 24 seasons before Lamoriello and Trotz arrived, the Islanders qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs eight times and won one series. New York has qualified for the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and is in the NHL semifinals for the second straight season after not advancing that far since 1993.

With two more wins against the Lightning, the Islanders would reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984, when their run of four-straight championships was ended by the Edmonton Oilers.

“Right now, I think we’re as good a team if not better than we were at any given time,” Lamoriello said before the semifinals began. “In fact, we’ve gotten better and better through this whole playoffs, embracing everything and anything that’s asked. 

“I’ve always said this, that individual players can help you win games, but to win a championship it has to be one complete team.”

That’s been Lamoriello’s philosophy from his days as coach (1968-1983) and athletic director (1982-1987) at Providence College through his GM terms with the Devils (1987-2015), Toronto Maple Leafs (2015-18) and the Islanders.

Like the Devils, the turnaround for the Islanders began with defense. New York allowed an NHL-worst 3.57 goals per game under coach Doug Weight in 2017-18. In their first season under Lamoriello and Trotz, the Islanders improved to a League-best 2.33 goals per game and were second this season (2.23) behind the Vegas Golden Knights (2.18). 

Zajac, who played 15 seasons for the Devils including the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, could see Lamoriello’s influence after he and Palmieri were traded to the Islanders on April 7.

“It’s based on structure,” Zajac said. “It’s based on commitment from the goaltender out. He believes that’s how you win, and he’s had success that way. You’re seeing it here the last few years since he’s been here.”

That structure also includes the way the roster is constructed with solid goaltending, a deep defense and four forward lines that can contribute in different ways, similarities to the Devils under Lamoriello. 

New Jersey had Hockey Hall of Famers in goalie Martin Brodeur and defensemen Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, but the configuration was the same. New York has an impressive top defense pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock supported by solid second (Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield) and third pairs (Greene and Noah Dobson). 

“The reason why they remind you (of the Devils) is the depth. And the depth starts with the defense,” said Scott Gomez, a center who won the Cup with New Jersey in 2000 and 2003 and was an assistant with the Islanders from 2017-19. “Pelech, I’m not saying he’s at that level of a Niedermayer, but I think people are starting to recognize how good this kid is.”

The depth and under-the-radar talent among the Islanders forwards is also similar. Center Mathew Barzal, who has scored six goals in the past eight games, is emerging as a bigger star, but New York has other skilled forwards who don’t get a lot of recognition, including Pageau, Palmieri, Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey.

New York’s fourth line of Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck, which they call their “Identity Line,” is reminiscent of the Devils’ “Crash Line” of Mike Peluso, Bobby Holik and Randy McKay because of its physicality, energy and ability to chip in offensively. Martin scored the winning goal in Game 4 on Saturday.

“That’s why everybody gives credit to that line, and they should get all the credit in the world because they do play a consistent brand of hockey,” MacLean said. “You know what you’re getting. They’re never going to try to fool you, that line. They just come right at you.”

Like former Devils forwards such as MacLean, Gomez, Patrik Elias and many others, the Islanders forwards buy into their system, which sometimes means sacrificing offensive numbers. However, that doesn’t mean the Islanders don’t score; they rank second in the playoffs with 3.19 goals per game. 

Daneyko, an analyst with NHL Network and MSG Network, compares Barzal to Niedermayer, though they play different positions, because each learned to play a complete game that utilizes their skating and offensive skills within the team structure.

“Guys like Trotz, guys like Lemaire, guys like Lou — and Lou is the orchestrator of all that — they are able to get these players to understand,” Daneyko said. “When you’re a winner, it seems you push all the right buttons. They’ve still got a long way to go here, but they’re one of the remaining four here that has as a good a chance as anybody to win it all.”

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