Trotz beginning to change culture for New York Islanders

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Barry Trotz didn’t scan the rafters for the banner.

Back in Washington, he never once looked up for the championship flag hanging high above the home ice of the Capitals. Yet when he turned around for the national anthem, Trotz said he saw the big white letters standing out on the red banner: ”STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS 2018” around the Capitals logo.

When the anthem was over, he turned back to the visitors’ bench and got back to work on trying to earn some more banners to hang – in New York.

After delivering the Capitals’ first championship in franchise history, Trotz is well on his way to changing the culture in his first season as Islanders coach and bringing that proud organization back to prominence. By implementing the same discipline off the ice and structure on the ice he did in Washington, Trotz has the Islanders in first place in their division past the halfway mark of the NHL season for just the second time in the past 28 years.

”It feels very similar to the first year (in Washington),” Trotz said. ”We were building something. We started with the structure and trying to make every moment count, the accountability, how we play, professionalism – all those things that make a pro athlete on and off the ice. We try to involve that with our organization as we did here. They’ve carried it on to the Stanley Cup, and we’re in the infancy stages.”

Modest to a fault and not eager to accept praise, Trotz considers the Islanders a ”work in progress.” But a lot of things are working:

They have won five in a row and 12 of 14. Their goalies lead the league with a .920 save percentage after ranking 28th last season. They have allowed the fewest goals a game in the league after being the worst in that category last season.

All this after point-a-game center John Tavares left in free agency to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. The Islanders were expected to struggle, to say the least.

Instead, they’ve thrived.

”I think a lot of guys took it as a little bit of an insult when we were starting to get ranked to be the worst team in the league after he left,” fourth-line winger Matt Martin said. ”(Trotz) gets the best out of everybody. … He gives everybody the role and responsibilities, everyone’s playing similar minutes every night, getting a real good opportunity to play. As a player, when you’re getting those opportunities and you feel emotionally invested, you feel involved.”

It could take a while for the Islanders to become a perennial Cup contender like they were four decades ago. But the building blocks are being put in place under first-year general manager Lou Lamoriello and Trotz’s staff that includes longtime goaltending guru Mitch Korn.

Trotz’s former players aren’t the least bit surprised at the early success.

”If you ask him, I’m sure he’s not surprised either,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”I actually think they’ve got really good players there. But he’s got that tendency to bring in a good system and to make sure you focus on the right things and he’s always pushing guys to get better.”

Reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal is on almost a point-a-game pace in his second season, captain Anders Lee is on the way to a 30-goal season, and Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss are stopping the puck at some of the best rates of their careers. Lee said he believes one of the Islanders’ strengths is how someone different seems to step up every night, a result of Trotz balancing ice time and making them feel like a cohesive unit.

”He does a wonderful job of rolling with guys that are feeling it or lines that are doing well that night and giving them matchups and getting everyone involved,” Lee said. ”He has a really good sense of how the game is going, the flow of it, and he can make those quick decisions in-game that makes him so effective.”

Lamoriello knew what he was getting in Trotz, who’s fourth all-time in NHL coaching wins and had an impressive resume from Nashville and Washington even before winning the Cup. The Islanders lucked out in getting Trotz, who left the Capitals in a contract dispute in June days after the championship.

”There’s no question that Barry Trotz is one of the elite coaches over the past X number of years in the National Hockey League,” Lamoriello said. ”He came with a group that had a very sort of down year for a lot of different reasons last year. We added some unique people as far as what they bring as far as character as well as abilities. I think that everybody just has made a total commitment from ownership through management that we were going to do everything that was necessary to have success, and either people were going to be on board or they weren’t going to be.”

Defenseman Brooks Orpik said it took some time a few years ago for the Capitals to understand why Trotz wanted some things, including the same set of rules for every player. The respect Trotz earned from Alex Ovechkin on down is growing with the Islanders.

”He’s been awesome,” winger Josh Bailey said. ”As a group, you’ve got to be able to trust your leadership, which is our staff and Barry’s the head of that for sure.”

After Trotz got his Cup ring earlier this season and before he coached his first game back in Washington, he told Islanders players he wants to have the same championship experience with them.

”It’s a day-to-day process,” Trotz said. ”You hear coaches use that, stay with the process. Just stay and keep growing as a team. And we don’t know where we’re going to end up.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.