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Five for Five: A New Season

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New for the 2019-20 season for Isles Blog, our Rob Taub each Monday will give you his thoughts on five important things to key on for that week’s games for the New York Islanders. 

The long wait is finally over — hockey season is finally set to get underway Wednesday night. And for the Islanders, the party gets started Friday at Nassau Coliseum against the Washington Capitals.

Barry Trotz enters his second season behind the Isles bench after leading his squad to 103 points last season, which awarded him the Jack Adams Award. His roster, slightly altered — Derick Brassard and Semyon Varlamov in, Valtteri Filppula and Robin Lehner out — have high expectations after sweeping the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins out of the first round. And his implemented defensive structure, which resulted in the Isles giving up 100 fewer goals from the previous season, the players now have down to a tee.

A lot of questions will be answered over the next seven months and hopefully the postseason.

Can the Islanders build off their success from last season despite a subpar summer? Will they still be searching for offense as they were most of last year? Will the defense and goaltending replicate its performance? And will they fall back after all their division foes got significantly better during the offseason or stick it to the naysayers once again?

The Isles are built to win now. This team has a solid mix of forwards led by third-year pro Mathew Barzal, one of its youngest, strongest and most talented defensive cores they’ve had in a long time headlined by Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews, and a few highly-touted prospects ready to make the jump to the pros. Last but not least, they are more hungry than previous seasons because they got that first taste of winning last year and in the spring.

So with the season set to get underway, and only two games with Washington and the Winnipeg Jets, here’s what to look out for:

The first line starting off hot.

Getting more production from the top line right off the hop will be an encouraging sign for not only the coaches but the fans. The Isles are going to lean on that first line of Barzal, captain Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle.

In the preseason, the chemistry between Barzal and Jordan Eberle was undeniable. They tore through the exhibition games and showed they are going to be a dynamic duo this season.

Lee, the pure goal scorer of the three, he didn’t hit 30 goals for a third consecutive season, falling two short. But he’s still a reliable goal-scorer. Getting to play with Barzal and the skill he possesses, Lee finding that elite level of putting the puck in the net right from the start doesn’t seem unrealistic.

An improved power play.

It’s crucial for the Isles to show that they’re significantly improved on the man-advantage. Trotz and new assistant coach/power play specialist, Jim Hiller, no longer have a first and second unit. Instead, they are just going to throw out who is actually contributing and showing effort.

We witnessed last season how much a struggling power play really hurt the offense — the Isles ranked 29th on the power play last season and 21st overall in goals for. Well, that can’t be the case again starting Friday. More shooting and less being “too cute” with the puck should be the gameplan. The Islanders have enough skill guys to where they should be able to find more ways to score 5-on-4. Add in the fact that Pulock and Toews can both quarterback whichever group is on ice and that they have booming shots; the power play has nowhere to go but up.

Noah Dobson’s welcome to the NHL.

The writing was on the wall today with Thomas Hickey being placed on waivers that Dobson made the team. The 19-year-old had a very strong training camp and preaseason, drawing more than enough praise from g.m. Lou Lamoriello and Trotz himself.

Now, the real test begins for Dobson, the 2018 first-rounder. He’s going to get the opportunity to show off his smooth style and the other intangibles he can bring at both ends of the ice. It’ll also be a fitting challenge for Dobson as he’ll get his chance at trying to defend some of the games most elite scorers, Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine.

Derick Brassard and Semyon Varlamov’s introduction to the team.

Both Brassard and Varlamov came to the Islanders this summer after experiencing rough seasons a year ago.

Brassard as the team’s new third-line center, will be tasked with focusing more on becoming a shutdown center, rather a more offensively-minded forward. The 31-year-old has always been notoriously known for his unique offensive skill and being more of a go-to guy when on the attack. That mentality will now have to take a backseat, especially also with another defensive-first forward in Leo Komarov playing on his right side.

As for Varlamov, this will be Islanders fans first look at their big offseason acquisition, $20-million to be exact. The weekend will also show at a glance how goalie coach Mitch Korn has worked with Varlamov to fix the flaws in his game, hopefully helping him return to Vezina form from years ago.

The fourth line setting the tone once again.

This was a common theme when Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck were re-formed to begin last season. They were effective from the get-go last year and the hope is that’s the same case later this week.

The cause for concern comes from the nasty spill that Cizikas took late on Saturday against the Rangers. Trotz said earlier today that Cizikas was “fine” but that they’ll have to wait till later in the week to know for sure if he won’t be ready. For Clutterbuck, it’s all about whether his body will hold up. He’s coming off back surgery and asking him to continue to play that crash-and-bang style might have a negative effect.

That leaves Matt Martin. Martin, who rarely gets hurt, might be the healthiest of the three and might have to do some extra work to get underneath the opponent’s skin.

Follow me on Twitter @RTaub_

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