EAST MEADOW, N.Y. (AP) The New York Islanders got off to a slow start last season and, despite a strong second half that followed a midyear coaching change, finished a point out of a playoff spot.
Now, Doug Weight has promised a hard camp as he heads into his first full season at the helm, hoping that will help the team get off to a better start.
“We know camp is going to be tough,” forward Casey Cizikas said. “Dougie’s been telling us that from the get go. … We gave away a lot of games last year where we could have got points and that’s what kind of impaired us at the end.”
The Islanders had just six wins in their first 20 games, and had stretches of improved play but struggled with consistency when Weight replaced Jack Capuano on Jan. 17 with the team last in the Eastern Conference at 17-17-8. The Islanders closed the season with six straight wins to finish 24-12-4 under Weight, who was hired on a permanent basis days after the season ended.
Missing the postseason by a point after the slow start stuck with the players in the offseason and many pointed to it as a motivating force.
“You think about it all summer,” veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. “Our start last year, it was terrible and we know that, and that’s why we weren’t in the playoffs.”
Captain John Tavares was looking forward to a full training camp after missing out last year while helping Canada win the World Cup of Hockey. With the departure of several longtime teammates and the additions of free agents Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera, the team struggled to develop chemistry and was juggling lines combinations through much of the first half of the season.
With the addition of forward Jordan Eberle in a trade with Edmonton, Tavares is looking forward to having the extra time to develop chemistry with his new teammate this year.
“Certainly it’s great to be here with your teammates that you’re going to be with all year from Day 1,” Tavares said. “Start the grind and build the camaraderie, that closeness you need to have success.”
Some other things to know as the Islanders head into their first day of practice Friday:
CAPTAIN’S CONTRACT: Tavares is still not signed beyond this season, but said he has not ruled out ongoing talks between agent Pat Brisson and team management during the season.
“I’m open to anything,” he said. “Communications are great. We’ll continue to keep that open, let the process continue to move along.”
The face of the franchise since he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft, Tavares is heading into the final season of a six-year, $33 million deal. He has averaged 33 goals and 41 assists the last three seasons, and his goal in the second overtime of Game 6 of the first round against Florida in March 2016 gave the franchise its only postseason series win since 1993.
LINING UP: Much of the focus in the offseason was on adding offense around Tavares. Though General Manager Garth Snow was unable to pry Matt Duchene from the Avalanche, Eberle should provide a big boost. The 27-year-old right wing has averaged 24.3 goals and 32.3 assists the last four years.
Though Weight hasn’t given any indication, the expectation is Eberle could replace Josh Bailey on the top line with Tavares and Anders Lee, who is coming off career highs of 34 goals and 52 points. The trickle-down effect will result in other lines being shuffled as well.
BETWEEN THE PIPES: Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak should give the Islanders a strong goaltending duo. Greiss took over as starter when Halak was waived and sent to minors on Dec. 31, but struggled down the stretch. Halak was called up and finished 6-1-0 with a 1.58 goals-against average as the Islanders made their late playoff push.
It’s unclear if Weight will name either the starter.
“Depends, too, on whoever plays good will play, I guess,” said Greiss, who was 26-18-5 with a 2.69 GAA while appearing in a career-high 51 games. “So just make sure you play well.”
YOUTH ON D: After trading longtime defensive stalwart Travis Hamonic to Calgary in the offseason, the Islanders will be turning to their farm system to fill the void. Adam Pelech, who appeared in 44 games last season, will likely get more playing time, and Ryan Pulock, who played in 15 in 2015-16, will get an extended look.
Scott Mayfield will be in the mix, too.
HOME SWEET HOME: The Islanders’ long-term arena situation remains unclear as they head into the third year at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center while eyeing the possibility of building a new home near Belmont Park.
However, they will be returning to their former home – the Nassau Coliseum, where they spent the franchise’s first 43 years – for the preseason opener Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen so many veterans say they want to play the first preseason game,” forward Cal Clutterbuck said.