The New York Islanders departed Tampa Bay last June exhausted and a step closer to the Stanley Cup Final than the prior season. The off-season provided uncertainty and question marks. The squad was close in the room and just as close to returning to the Final since 1984.
Lou Lamoriello was determined to keep this group together while trying to improve upon a successful three seasons under head coach Barry Trotz. The salary cap provided a huge hurdle in the chances of realistically keeping this group together for the 2021-22 season.
Islanders Off-Season Challenges
The first obstacle was the expansion draft, followed by the re-signing of the important restricted free agents. If that was not enough, Lamoriello had to retain important impending unrestricted free agents. After checking the couch cushions and car seats for remaining cap space, the next duty was adding new faces to the roster.
Despite the enormous challenge, the future Hall of Fame General Manager cleared space and brought back most of the group that made it to back-to-back Conference Finals. Jordan Eberle and Nick Leddy were the major casualties. Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara were the new, veteran faces added to the squad.
A full season with Kyle Palmeri and a healthy Anders Lee brought much hope to improve on the scoring challenged roster. Oliver Wahlstrom showed flashes of becoming the sniper desperately needed for the top-six forwards. Lamoriello did an exceptional job with the roster and cap space in the summer, but still, the team lacked a true sniper.
Rough Start for Islanders
Nevertheless, the team was primed to make another Cup run with exceptional team depth. A new arena to open, following up on a successful off-season brought much optimism.
The team had known the season would start with a difficult 13 game road trip. After playing a lot of intense playoff hockey games the last two seasons, it would be difficult to start from square one and do so on a historic road trip.
The surprising results early brought natural panic to the fanbase, but the team recovered by stringing together some points in a 4-game span. Before heading home to open the new, beautiful UBS Arena, the team began to falter once again. Was this team beat from the long road trip or just beat from all the hockey played the prior seasons?
Enter Covid stage left. The team was struck with injuries and a recent bout of Covid. Struggling to put a team on the ice, the club battled but continued to fall short of important points. The NHL cancelled the next two games as the Covid list grew. A little too late in many eyes, but the break gives the Islanders a chance to get healthy and pause a chaotic 17 games.
It is easy to forget the phenomenal hockey this team has played over the last year. The players have looked lethargic and disinterested through this first stretch. The power play has continued to provide little to no assistance in the scoring. Chara and Parise have not started the season well with their new squad and Semyon Varlamov has not regained the form of playoffs past.
Many have written off the season despite having reached the 20 game mark of the season. Currently, the Islanders are 12 points out of the last Wild Card spot with four games in hand.
The objective is not for this team to earn the President’s Trophy but to simply make the playoffs and finish what they started. The team is built for playoff hockey and not a wide-open style, trading goals with the opposition. It was not going to be a breeze getting to the playoffs this season, but to give up this quickly is highly premature.
The players have not performed, whether healthy or not. This is a group of players that know the task at hand and what needs to be done to string together wins. If any player forgot how to play the game correctly, the best coaching staff in the NHL is behind the bench to remind them.
Teams have started this campaign playing the best hockey they may play all season. This season is not shortened; it all will play itself out in the long run. The panic button has been pressed, but this break may be the best thing for the Islanders, health concerns aside.
The breather will give a much-needed mental refresher. Stringing together a streak of wins is something this group is accustomed to under Barry Trotz. The combination of wins and more importantly wins against teams ahead of them in the standings could provide a quicker fix than expected.
Watch old highlights and hype videos of this core from the prior playoffs. It is easy to forget what they are capable of after this start, but this is far from over.