It's difficult to sum up all the ways the Islanders have improved this season over their gloomy past, but we'll try. Here are nine reasons the Isles are where they are today -- looking down on the rest of the Eastern Conference:
General manager Garth Snow's first move to address the disappointing 2013-14 season came just a few weeks after it ended, trading a fourth-round pick to the Caps for the rights to Jaroslav Halak. A month after that, Halak signed a four-year, $18 million deal. Now, seven months after that, Halak has rewarded Snow's aggressiveness by being an All-Star.
"I see him now and he has a calmness in the net. With a young team, that calmness helps a lot," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of his former No. 1 goaltender when St. Louis came to the Coliseum in December.
Chad Johnson signed on July 1 to be Halak's backup. That hasn't gone quite as well, with Johnson's .879 even-strength save percentage last in the league for goaltenders with 10 or more starts. But Halak is the man in the Islanders net; backups are just not that relevant for the elite teams headed to the postseason.
FREE AGENCY, HUMAN BEHAVIOR
Snow was equally aggressive when July 1 came around, though it was July 2 when the Islanders made their splash.
Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin are not point-hogging dynamos, combining so far for 14 goals and 16 assists. But the veteran forwards, signed for four years at $20 million and $16.75 million, have given the Islanders depth and balance up front and, despite low point totals, both Grabovski and Kulemin have filled their roles well.
Snow could have garnered praise on July 1 had any of four big names taken his money. Thomas Vanek (Wild), Dan Boyle (Rangers), Brad Richards (Hawks) and Jarome Iginla (Avalanche) were all offered the same or more dough by the Isles, but all turned Snow down for various reasons.
Had any of them jumped, there's likely no Grabovski/Kulemin additions, and possibly no Oct. 4 trades to put the Isles over the top.
Snow wasn't finished with his offseason additions, even if it meant taking things down to the few days before the season opened.
The last piece left for the Isles GM was to upgrade the team's defense. He did so with two stunning moves within hours of one another on Oct. 4, trading three draft picks to the Bruins for Johnny Boychuk and then well-regarded defense prospect Ville Pokka plus two other non-NHLers to the Blackhawks for Nick Leddy.
"I think it felt like it really solidified our team, every aspect," John Tavares said. "You could see the depth at all positions now. Two guys, Stanley Cup champions, both in the prime of their careers."
Barring any long-term injuries to key Islanders, it's unlikely that Snow will tinker further by the March 2 trade deadline. Oct. 4 was the Isles' deadline this season and they certainly made the most of it.
On the ice, all the moves paid dividends right away. Boychuk scored the first goal of the Islanders season in Raleigh, Halak won the first game and Johnson the next night at home.
Off the ice, all the longtime Isles took notice when Boychuk, who had been quoted about his sadness at leaving Boston, held court his first practice day and declared, "We have a good team here."
"Things just clicked right away," Tavares said. "We're a close group in here and all the guys fit right in."
Grabovski and Kulemin had been teammates and close friends in Toronto. Leddy and Boychuk couldn't be more different, with the quiet, unassuming Leddy and the loud, ever-smiling Boychuk, but their transition was seamless.
The team's record is a reflection of that.
"After that second game a buddy from college texted me, 'Big weekend for your Isles,'" Kyle Okposo said. "I wrote him back, 'I haven't been this excited about a team since our freshman year (at the Univ. of Minnesota)."
The Islanders have had a pair of three-game losing streaks, including an ugly one in December when they blew a pair of 3-0 leads to the Blues and Wild, then got run over in St. Louis.
They responded to the two streaks with a couple more positive streaks, going 10-1-0 after losing three straight in the opening month of the season and then, following the December slide, running off an 11-3-1 charge in which they've allowed no more than 28 shots on goal per game.
"We've had mostly ups, but there have been some downs," Okposo said. "Most importantly we haven't faltered from the process. That's the mark of a good team."
Tavares and Okposo -- at least until his four-goal outburst on Friday -- have been off their scoring pace from a season ago. But the goal is to win, not to make sure the Isles have a couple guys in the scoring title chase, and the two stars much prefer a balanced lineup to one that features them and little else.
"That's the way Garth has tried to build the team, to be tough to match up with," Tavares said. "Two years ago, that was such a key, with big contributions from guys all the way up and down the lineup."
"Johnny could lead the league in scoring, he has that capability, but there's no real pressure," Okposo said. "Of course we want to score every night, but our team is rolling. We're not a one-line team, we're a four-line team. That's the real strength of teams. I think Boston's proven that over the past couple years, having three lines that can score and a fourth line that plays a big role. We're really well-rounded."
Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome and Anders Lee aren't much younger than veteran Islanders like Tavares, Okposo, Matt Martin or Travis Hamonic. But those first three, who formed a Kid Line at times this season, have been major, major contributors to the hot start.
"I think we all got a taste last season, especially down the stretch when some of the big guys were out," Nelson said. "We played in a lot of different situations and I think we're all more confident for it."
Nelson has slowed a bit, but still has 15 goals. Lee has 11 goals, fourth among NHL rookies. And Strome has 31 points while averaging only 14:47 of ice time per game.
Snow stuck with Jack Capuano through last season because the GM saw more of a roster issue than a coaching issue. Capuano, now into his fifth season, hasn't wavered from how he coaches and how he delivers his message. It's the Islanders who have adapted and thrived.
"I think it's just maturity," Capuano said. "They understand how they have to play to be successful."
Another key component, instilled by Capuano: Players holding each other to high standards. He's had a few moments over the years of snapping at his team, but they're rare. Capuano would much rather his players call one another out when things aren't going well.
"I think maybe we were a little afraid of doing that at first," Frans Nielsen said, "but we've gotten better at it."
Or "swaggah," as Capuano likes to pronounce it. Everyone else around the league may still be warming to the idea that the Islanders are a good team, and that's fair. This is a franchise that last won 30 games before February in 1983-84.
But inside the locker room, there is no hesitation or doubt.
"We feel we can win every game," Tavares said after the Isles shut out the Rangers on Tuesday. "There's still a long way to go, we know that. But we're a confident group."