The mere second after John Tavares scored in overtime in Detroit to end the regular season just six months ago, the first thing that came to mind for New York Islanders players, fans, and the organization as a whole was what would the future look like.
Six months later, that future has taken on a whole new dynamic.
Tavares is now donning a Maple Leafs sweater. Calvin de Haan now resides in Raleigh. Doug Weight and Garth Snow were relieved of their duties and have been all but disassociated from the day-to-day operations of the organization. Insert three-time Stanley Cup winning GM Lou Lamoriello, Cup winning head coach Barry Trotz (who won it for first time in June with the Capitals), a qualified coaching staff, and veterans Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Luca Sbisa.
On paper, there’s a lot left to be desired for the club.
The Isles are top-heavy up front with reigning Calder winner Mat Barzal, and talented forwards in Anthony Beauvillier, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, and Brock Nelson. But the bottom-six is skeptical based on the talent and the moves made to improve it. Defensively, the team is coming off its worst statistical season since the 1995-96 season — 293 goals against — and there were very minimal changes to made to hopefully halt a repeat performance. For goaltending, the duo of 32-year old Thomas Greiss — last season was his worst as a pro — and 27-year old Robin Lehner seems scary enough to make you want to watch the game through your hands.
Starting tomorrow night in Carolina, this new era of the Islanders hockey gets underway with a myriad of questions yet to be answered. Those questions will only make this season the most interesting it’s been in recent memory.
Here’s ten questions for the season that need to be answered by the Isles:
- HOW DOES THE TEAM ADJUST IN THE POST-JOHN TAVARES ERA?
This development will follow the Islanders around all season long, maybe even more than a year ago when Tavares was playing out the final year of his five-year deal and deciding whether to commit long-term to the franchise. Losing a franchise cornerstone, rebounding doesn’t happen overnight. Management wise, the organization is in the best shape in ages with Trotz and Lou. But the roster itself could still use some tweaks if the club is serious about contending in the near future. Barzal, now clearly the focal point of the franchise and The Man replacing Tavares, will be the driver on offense. It will be on the rest of his teammates to pick up the slack with Tavares gone. This season doesn’t look to be an easy ride, but with the new additions to the team and overall change in mentality, the adjustments hopefully come quicker than a lot of people expect.
2. WHO WILL STEP UP OFFENSIVELY?
Tavares leaving will allow more forwards a chance to take their game to the next level. And the Isles — who were still one of the best scoring teams in the league a year ago — definitely have some players more than certified to carry the bulk. Beauvillier, just from his monster second half last season and his standout performance in training camp/preseason, looks locked and loaded to be an even more integral part of the offense. Eberle and Lee are both in a contract year coming off stellar seasons and could be looking to overachieve. The past two seasons have been a revelation for Bailey and the hope is without Tavares by his side, he still able to contribute at a high-rate. The dark horse is Nelson. Take away the fact that it’s a prove it or your gone scenario for the 26-year old, but that he’s also finally getting his shot at playing his natural position and he is being leaned on by Trotz to be that true number two center.
3. WILL MATHEW BARZAL TAKE A STEP BACK?
Barzal not having the safety blanket of Tavares in front of him will be one of the underlying story lines from start to finish. He still just 21 years of age, but he proved time and time again in his rookie season that he’s willing to accept all challenges. Some say that Barzal will have more difficulty being opposed by the league’s top defenders, but that could become the total opposite because the offense now runs through him. Add in the chemistry he’s formed with the aforementioned Beauvillier, Barzal, Bailey, and throw Lee in that mix, and it seems like he will have an even larger impact on the offense this year.
4. CAN THE THIRD LINE REIGNITE THE TEAM’S FOUR-LINE ATTACK?
It’s still clear that the trio — Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck — was the Islanders backbone before Martin left, and now that he’s returned. After what the club got from their bottom-six in 2017-18, this threesome will be relied on heavily to re-establish that four-line roll that allowed the team to be successful for two straight years. Now technically the third line, Martin, Cizikas, and Clutterbuck all are looking to rebound after tough seasons and bring that energy that was evidently missing. If this line is capable of what everyone knows they capable of doing, it will take the pressure off the top guys and allow for other forwards to find ways to contribute.
5. OTHER THAN RYAN PULOCK, WHO CAN BE THE DIFFERENCE MAKER ON DEFENSE?
Here’s something about the Isles defense: they are not as bad as the numbers from last year says they were. More than anything, the problems defensively from this season prior was due to poor structure and not enough attention to detail — as Trotz likes to say. But this season, several things need to happen for those on the blueline to rediscover themselves.
Nick Leddy, who’s been mostly solid heading into his fourth season with the team, could revert back to his old ways and be the stalwart at both ends of the ice after just a dismal campaign in 2017-18. Johnny Boychuk — who seems fully healthy but never seems to be the case — can still play at a high level, and a new system might benefit him because of his rough and tumble style. Now that he stayed in the fold, Thomas Hickey has played sound hockey for a number of years, but maybe he finally takes a big leap forward. The two youngsters, yes both are still only 24 and 25, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield are now at a stage where they need to show consistency every night and cement themselves as quality d-men. It’s hard to expect much from Sbisa based on his numbers, but we’ve seen crazier things before when the Isles give defensemen a shot to prove themselves (cough Dennis Seidenberg).
6. CAN ROBIN LEHNER BECOME THE TRUE NUMBER ONE IN NET?
One thing that has plagued the Islanders for almost a decade has been goaltending. Yes, they had Evgeni Nabakov and Jaro Halak (now in Boston), but the number one spot in between the pipes has never been solidified to a point where it’s no longer a concern. With Robin Lenher now in the fold, the franchise has its youngest goaltender playing since Rick DiPietro who was 26 to start the 2007-08 season. The Islanders are taking a risk on Lehner — who did reveal he’s been dealing with mental-health issues — and it could go either way. But with something to prove and Greiss getting older, the opportunity is right there for Lehner to take the reins and finally provide short or long-term stability. Learning from goalie guru Mitch Korn and new coach Piero Greco should help in providing that stability.
7. WILL SPECIAL TEAMS FINALLY BECOME AN ADVANTAGE?
In recent years, it’s been so common for the Islanders special teams to be on opposite sides of the spectrum. For a while, it was the a fantastic penalty kill and spotty power play, then it became a god-awful penalty kill and above-average power play. This year, all four units have new parts that could provide a balance. The man-advantage has a ton of skill with Barzal, Lee, Bailey, Beauvillier, plus two quarterbacks — Pulock and Boychuk — on the back end with booming shots. The penalty kill brings some more juice and some defensively responsible players with Komarov, Filppula, and Martin now in the mix. Both facets will be crucial if the Islanders want to have more success than many think they can attain.
8. WILL THE YOUTH MOVEMENT FINALLY TAKE PLACE?
There was definitely a surprise element that Devon Toews did not make the team, but less blow back that high-end forwards Kieffer Bellows and Josh Ho-Sang didn’t crack the 23-man roster. It’s hard to see all three not up with the varsity sometime soon or during the season. That all depends on the results and if the Isles can get anything out of their veterans and new additions. Right now, the roster is lauded with a mix of young and old, maybe some would say of that old past their best days, but there will have to be a clear time where youth wins out and the real, long anticipated future of the franchise sets in.
9. WILL BARRY TROTZ GET THE MOST OUT OF THIS GROUP?
Trotz was brought in by Lamoriello as a major player to help change the culture of this organization and return it to its winning ways. Just from the reports of training camp — and even the first day where he stopped the practice five minutes in to assert his message that the old way of doing things won’t cut it — there is a different feel from the players down to the fans. And for someone who is coming off winning a Stanley Cup, Trotz is the kind of coach that won’t take lightly guys not competing at the highest level or half-assing their way on the ice. It’s a very intriguing group with some elements the new bench boss can make thrive. He’s got the pedigree and the track record to show it.
10. IS THE FRANCHISE ANY CLOSER TO BECOMING A LEGIT CONTENDER?
The old saying going around once #91 departed was that the Islanders were going to have to start over, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is talent there, and there is a new mindset overall that will make all the changes hopefully worth it in the end. This club has a chip on its shoulder for the first time in a long time and want to prove the doubters wrong. Are they still a few pieces away? Sure. But by the end of this year, or maybe even sometime before that, the critics and fans will know where the Islanders stand heading into the future.