The New York Islanders could have played it safe a year ago when John Tavares bolted for Toronto.
But head coach Barry Trotz recognized an obvious candidate to fill a leadership role and didn’t hesitate to follow his instincts.
Anders Lee was in position to leave the organization as he headed toward unrestricted free agency and could have been the second captain in as many seasons to walk out the door.
But that didn’t stop Trotz from announcing Lee as the 15th captain in franchise history and the team is benefiting today from that important decision last season.
Lee changed the direction of the game with a critical goal in the early part of the first period in the Islanders’ 5-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers Sunday. The team’s seven-game winning streak is the longest (in a single season) since they won nine straight in the 1989-90 season per team statistician Eric Hornick.
The 29-year-old power forward won a race to the corner to help the Islanders establish possession in the offensive zone, then beat Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim to the back post to even the score at 3:17 of the first period.
”He’s our leader,” fourth-line center Casey Cizikas said. ”When you see him and he plays like that, getting to pucks, taking the body, fight in those dirty areas, you want to follow him. That’s what you want in your captain and he has done a tremendous job at leading us.”
The Islanders followed in Lee’s footsteps, scoring four of the next five goals as the team climbed to second place in the Metropolitan Division on the back of a seven-game winning streak following a 1-3-0 start to the season.
“You always look to your leadership and they’re going to set the tone,” Trotz said. “His (Lee) goal was a great example of leadership. Leadership is, you don’t have a license to do less, you have a responsibility to do more. He knew it was a big game, and he did more.”
The culture surrounding the Islanders has changed radically since Lou Lamoriello and Trotz arrived on Long Island. The Islanders have posted a 55-30-7 record and won a round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for only the second time since the 1992-93 season.
The Islanders have established an identity over that time as a defensively sound team that frustrates opponents. But their mental toughness has been the team’s attribute that has seen the most significant improvement.
Take Sunday for example. Flyers forward Jakub Voracek scored 1:07 into the game and the Islanders didn’t blink.
”It didn’t affect us.” Trotz said of the early deficit. ”I thought our minds were in the right place. I don’t think it even fazed us.”
One of Lee’s most impressive traits is that he does a tremendous job creating a familial atmosphere that translates to success on and off the ice.
“We play for each other, it’s been a lot of fun,” said Derick Brassard.
Trotz and Lamoriello have played a large part in helping the Islanders form a new identity, but that message gets lost in the shuffle if a group of players is not able to relay the same information to their peers. Veterans Johnny Boychuk, Josh Bailey, Cal Clutterbuck have been able to assist, but they are clearly following in the footsteps of Lee.
The organization took a gamble naming Lee captain at the start of last season, a risk that is paying huge dividends today.
Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.