EAST MEADOW, N.Y. (AP) — The New York Islanders know they are being overlooked after finishing 17 points out of a playoff spot last season and losing captain John Tavares to free agency during the summer.
That’s ok with them.
They still have plenty of scoring options, led by Anders Lee and reigning rookie of the year Mathew Barzal, and added a Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz and three-time champion executive Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations.
”I think we stand in a good position to surprise a lot of people,” Lee said Thursday at the team’s annual media day. ”A lot’s been said that’s fueled us. I think the biggest fueling factor is we’ve gone home early last two years and we’ve got a lot of work to do to get back to where we want to be.”
Lee had the franchise’s first 40-goal in 11 seasons, and Barzal led the team with 85 points (22 goals, 63 assists) as the Islanders finished eighth in the league in scoring with 261 goals. However, a porous defense that saw the team give up a league-worst 293 goals helped New York miss the playoffs for the second straight year and eighth in the last 11.
And with Tavares gone home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, experts aren’t giving the Islanders much of a chance to contend this season. The players, however, aren’t willing to write off the year before it even begins.
”Obviously we’re being ranked as an underdog team but we’re going to use that as motivation,” forward Jordan Eberle said. ”You look at a lot of teams that have done that in the past … if you don’t have a lot of pressure you can do a lot of good things.”
The struggles of the last couple of years cost general manager Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight their jobs, replaced by Lamoriello – who has also taken over GM duties – and Trotz.
”They seem great, come from winning pedigrees and command a lot of respect for good reason,” forward Josh Bailey said.
The 75-year-old Lamoriello led the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cup championships during his 18 years as general manager before spending the last three seasons as GM of the Maple Leafs. Trotz led the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup title in June before leaving in a contract dispute.
”Look at his resume, he’s been successful everywhere he’s gone,” Lee said about Trotz. ”He’s bringing a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge that he’s going to be able to work with us and really get us to where we want to be.”
The new coach’s message is simple: focus on details and strive for improvement each day,
”We got to be hard to play against, we got to have structure, we got to have a work ethic,” Trotz said. ”And the mindset that you’re going to compete for that inch that you need, or the two inches, whatever it is, just get better every day, find a way to get better.”
With no notable additions on defense, the improvement on that side of the puck will have to come from Trotz’s system.
”It’s not as much about Xs and Os as much as it is about attitude and accountability,” he said.
Some other things to know as the Islanders head into their first practice of training camp on Friday:
NO CAPTAIN?: With Tavares gone, there is an opening for the captain’s role. Trotz, however, said he doesn’t know the players well enough yet to name one, and he may not assign anyone that mantle.
That approach is fine by the players.
”We got a lot of leaders in our room,” veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. ”As long as we win, that’s what the goal is. Everybody can be a leader at some point. … Everybody speaks up in the dressing room when the time comes.”
FOURTH LINE REUNION?: Matt Martin is back after spending two seasons in Toronto, raising speculation the Islanders could restore him to the fourth line with Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas that was successful in the years before his departure.
”We got to prove that we’re still the same players and be the same line we were a few years ago,” Martin said. ”Nothing is going to be handed to us. … We got to go out there and earn it, prove it. At the end of the day we all want to win games, so whatever lines are to win games, be competitive and get in the playoffs and hopefully have a cup run.”
GOALIES: Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner go into the season as the primary goalie tandem. Greiss 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 seasons in Buffalo. He is coming off a year in which he went 14-26-9 with three shutouts and a 3.01 GAA for the last-place Sabres.
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