NEW YORK — After the New York Islanders were swept in the second round of the playoffs, they went into the offseason uncertain how the team would look when it returned this month.
Several players were headed for free agency and there were some big names available.
Ultimately, the Islanders re-signed nearly all their own players and return with the core intact for a second season under coach Barry Trotz and president and general manager Lou Lamoriello.
”Lou did a good job bringing everyone back,” said forward Jordan Eberle, one of the returning free agents. ”Now it’s just a matter of us putting in the work and getting the job done.”
The Islanders were one of the surprise teams last season when they finished second in the Metropolitan Division, then swept Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs before getting ousted by Carolina. It marked the second time in four years New York reached the second round after a 23-year stretch in which it either missed the playoffs or didn’t advance past the opening round.
Now, the Islanders are hoping to build off the foundation set in the first year under Trotz.
”That familiarity is nice to have,” forward Josh Bailey said. ”A lot of our group understands what’s expected of us. Hopefully kick off where we finished last year, have a good start.”
A year ago, the Islanders were predicted by many experts to miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 12 seasons, especially after losing star center John Tavares in free agency. However, the team took advantage of timely goals and scoring chances created by Trotz’s defense-oriented system.
Despite that success, the Islanders have no shortage of naysayers expecting them to regress.
”At the end of the day, we really like the group we got in here,” center Mathew Barzal said. ”We got chemistry in the locker room, chemistry on the ice, we got a good (penalty-kill) and we got a good staff. They’re going to give us a good game plan, we just got to execute it.”
The one major change was in goal with Semyon Varlamov signed to replace Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner, who had combined with Thomas Greiss to win the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL. It also gives Greiss, entering the final year of his contract, his third goalie partner in three seasons.
Greiss and Lehner shared a near-even split of games during the regular season, though Lehner started all eight playoff games. Trotz has indicated he will use the same approach during this season.
”I think I’ll let it play out, same premise as last year,” he said. ”We’re in the winning business, so whoever is doing the job we’ll try to do that. It’s getting harder and harder for a true No. 1 to play in a 70-games-per-year type of thing.”
WHO’S HERE: G Semyon Varlamov, F Derick Brassard.
WHO’S NOT: G Robin Lehner, F Valtteri Filppula.
KEY PLAYERS: The strong team-defense approach was backed by the stellar play of Lehner and Greiss last season. The Islanders will need to replicate that success with Varlamov and Greiss between the pipes. Varlamov has been primarily a starter over his 11-year career, but last season was 20-19-9 while appearing in 49 games – his second-lowest total over the previous six years. Eberle came on strong down the stretch with five goals and an assist in the last seven regular season games, and then had four goals and five assists in the eight playoff games. Nelson thrived in Trotz’s system, getting his first 50-point season (25 goals, 28 assists) in six years in the NHL, and will need to put up similar numbers. Brassard struggled while playing for three teams last season, but he could help improve the Islanders’ struggling power play. Young defenseman Noah Dobson is getting a long look in training camp and would need to displace one of the top seven to crack the opening-day roster. If he doesn’t, under the CBA he can’t play in the AHL this season and would have to go back to juniors.
OUTLOOK: The struggles in the second round against Carolina suggested a need to add a top-line scorer, but they failed to do that. With the team mostly unaltered and still motivated to improve, there’s no reason to expect a regression. The Islanders won’t sneak up on any teams this season, but they still have a championship-winning coaching staff and their defense creates scoring chances.
PREDICTION: The Islanders led the Metropolitan Division for a big chuck of the middle of the season before finishing second at 48-27-7 – a 13-win improvement over the previous year – and 103 points. If Varlamov can return to his previous form under the tutelage of goaltending guru Mitch Korn, the Islanders should be able to contend for the top of the Metropolitan Division again.