In what has been a roller coaster season to this point, the New York Islanders have to be somewhat relieved that they currently sit in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 13 games left in their regular season. With injuries to several key players over the last few weeks (with what appears to be a season-ending injury to Mathew Barzal being the biggest) forcing multiple American Hockey League (AHL) call-ups, a recent 11-5-3 surge has saved a season that appeared to be slipping away after a 4-8-3 January.
When you consider first-year coach Lane Lambert took over a team that missed the playoffs by 16 points and began play this season with essentially the same roster as last season, to be in the position they’re in is certainly not unfavorable. However, after the trade for Bo Horvat and the decision of general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello to forgo moving unrestricted free agents (UFA) Semyon Varlamov, Scott Mayfield and Zach Parise for draft assets at the deadline, it is clear the message from management was playoffs or bust.
What this means for the future of Lambert behind the Isles’ bench is unclear. Sure, the GM gave Lambert a vote of confidence after a 2-1 loss to Ottawa on Jan. 25, the team’s sixth loss in a row at the time, that briefly dropped them out of a playoff spot. The coach and team have rebounded nicely from what was a brutal January (4-8-3).
New Arena = High Expectations
The thought of missing the playoffs two years in a row, especially after moving into the gem of an arena that is UBS, is ominous and the specter of significant organizational changes should that occur is a very real possibility. As we’ve mentioned in this space previously, the NHL’s Eastern Conference is stacked and any GM not at the top of their game risks NHL irrelevancy real fast. Also, it’s hard to imagine owner Jon Ledecky remaining satisfied with his new $1.5 billion hockey arena having zero hockey games being played in it for a second consecutive spring (As Islanders plunge in standings, is first-year coach Lane Lambert safe?, The Athletic, January 23, 2023).
One thing about Lambert is the fact he reveals nothing publicly. His facial expression and overall demeanor have remained exactly the same during the difficult stretches as well as the fruitful ones. If he was relieved to have gotten that late January vote of confidence from his boss, he kept it to himself. He also remained stoic during the recent spate of injuries, calmly steering the ship in and out of the rough waters they’ve hit of late. Lamoriello has to be impressed with the teams’ 6-3-1 run since the Barzal injury.
A fairly favorable schedule sees the Isles playing only six teams currently in playoff position in the final 13 games. By comparison, the teams realistically still left in the chase (Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals) all face a more difficult schedule down the stretch.
Replacing Trotz No Easy Task
In fairness to Lambert, replacing an established coach like Barry Trotz was going to be a tall order. Arriving on Long Island after having just won the Cup (2018) with the Capitals, he quickly guided the Isles to three straight postseason berths and two straight semifinal appearances (2020, 2021). Trotz was the quintessential “player’s coach” and his firing back in May of 2022 sent shock waves around the NHL. Stepping in to replace a coach with Trotz resume, especially one you worked for as an assistant for 10 years, was going to be a challenge. While Lambert obviously knew the system Trotz had the Isles playing in, the two coaches are on opposite ends of the coaching personality spectrum — Trotz was affable and gregarious while Lambert plays it far closer to the vest.
Of course, none of this matters as success for NHL coaches is ultimately defined by wins and losses. You have to figure, a playoff spot for a team that didn’t land one last season would certainly have everyone, from Ledecky to Lamoriello to the fans, breathing a lot easier regarding the Islanders’ immediate future.
The safe bet is if this team makes the playoffs, Lambert is back behind the bench for the 2023-24 season. What happens should the Islanders stumble down the stretch and miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season makes that somewhat less of a sure thing for everyone, including the GM.