As they begin their first season without John Tavares, the New York Islanders are certain to be a different team. They believe they can be better, too.
There’s new leadership with Lou Lamoriello running the front office and Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz behind the bench. And even without their former captain, the Islanders still have plenty of offense with Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee leading the way.
After guiding Washington to the championship in June, Trotz is being counted on to turn an Islanders team that has just one playoff series win since 1993 into a winner.
“It’s a process, it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “We want to build a consistent contender, that’s plain and simple. Once you get to the status of being a consistent contender, you get into the (playoffs) every year and you have a chance to win the Cup.”
The Islanders have missed the playoffs the last two years and eight of the last 11. Last season, they finished 17 points out of a postseason spot after losing 30 of their final 45 games. The struggles led to the change in leadership that has also brought new optimism if not high expectations.
“If people say we’re underdogs, that’s fine, you just take it game by game,” defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. “When you miss the playoffs, you obviously don’t want to miss it again. … That’s the goal for our team, to make the playoffs and ultimately win.”
Barzal is coming off a stellar debut season in which he earned the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rooking after leading the Islanders with 85 points (22 goals, 63 assists). With Tavares gone to his hometown Maple Leafs, Barzal knows he will be counted on to step up.
“John is a great player, it’s tough to replace him,” Barzal said. “But now that it’s over with we have to look ahead. I’m excited for the challenge. We got a lot of other guys here I’m assuming are excited to fill a bigger role.”
Barzal isn’t the only scoring threat on a team that finished eighth in the NHL with 261 goals. Lee had the franchise’s first 40-goal season in 11 years, Josh Bailey had a career-high 71 points (18 goals, 53 assists), and Jordan Eberle added 25 goals and 34 assists.
HOMES SWEET HOMES
Just 3 1/2 years after seemingly playing their last game at the Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders will be back on Long Island for nearly half their home games. The team will play 21 games at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, their home since the start of the 2015-16 season, and 20 at the Coliseum under an arrangement could last three seasons until their new arena is built next to the racetrack at Belmont Park. Many players live near the old facility.
“It’s going to be a lot easier for the guys, as far as commuting goes,” veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck said. “Hopefully people are as excited to have us back as we are to be back.”
IMPROVING THE DEFENSE
Hampered by injuries to some key players, the defense gave up league-worst numbers in goals and shots allowed, and the Islanders were also last in penalty-killing. However, Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech established themselves as solid young defensemen and will be counted on to steady a unit that lost Calvin de Haan and added only Luca Sbisa. Improvement will have to come from Trotz’s system.
After enduring the uncertainty of Tavares’ contract situation all last season, the Islanders could face similar questions again as several players — including Lee and Jordan Eberle — are in the final year of their deals. Others who could be unrestricted free agents include Brock Nelson, and newcomers Valtteri Filppula, Tom Kuhnhackl, Jan Kovar and Robin Lehner.
“Everyone’s unique in their own situation, everything is going to fall into different spots for individual guys,” Lee said. “I was able to watch and learn from (Tavares’ situation), but our cases are different.”
BETWEEN THE PIPES
Thomas Greiss and Lehner go into the season as the primary goalie tandem. Greiss, who split time with Jaroslav Halak (now in Boston) most of the last three seasons, dealt with an injury down the stretch last year and finished 13-8-2 with one shutout and a 3.82 goals-against average. The 26-year-old Lehner was signed as a free agent after spending the previous three years in Buffalo. He was 14-26-9 with three shutouts and a 3.01 GAA for the last-place Sabres last season.
Source: The Associated Press