Last year, the New York Islanders faced the Boston Bruins in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In a back-and-forth series, both teams displayed talent in all three zones with rosters that looked poised to win the Cup. Ultimately, the Islanders won three consecutive games to win the series in six games, but both teams looked ready to compete for the Cup next season and for years to come.
Fast forward one year later, and after both teams took steps back in a difficult season, with the Islanders failing to make the playoffs and the Bruins losing in seven games in Round 1. Moreover, both front offices fired their head coaches, and while the Islanders already promoted assistant coach Lane Lambert, the Bruins are still searching for their next head coach. Ultimately, the past year showed how much can change in the NHL and how two otherwise respected franchises can quickly decline along with their otherwise strong reputations.
The NHL Overwhelming Both Rosters
The Islanders’ average age last season was 30.1, the oldest in the league. While some players like Zdeno Chara (45-years-old) and Andy Greene (39-years-old) make the number look misleading, a lot of the key players on the team were 30 years old or older. The experience under head coach Barry Trotz was an advantage for a few seasons, providing the Islanders with one of the more disciplined and veteran teams in the game, but in the past season, the consequences of an older team showed.
While the Bruins’ average age was 28.5 years old, which was the 12th oldest in the league, a lot of their key players were in the later stages of their careers. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, two cornerstones of the roster, are 34 years old and 36 years old, respectively, and the core has been together for years, helping keep the team consistently competitive. But after a few seasons, they have become an aging core. Last season, the Bruins were once again competitive but remained a few steps behind the elite teams, resulting in a wild-card finish in the Eastern Conference and a Round 1 exit.
Both the Bruins and the Islanders ultimately looked overwhelmed. The league is younger and faster, with teams that can skate quickly through all three zones and effectively handle the puck are the ones that make a deep playoff run. The Islanders looked like a slower team with a slower game, constantly being outskated. The Bruins, at times, looked like they could play with some of the league’s best, with their star players like David Pastrnak, Marchand, Bergeron, and defenseman Charlie McAvoy keeping them afloat, but in the end, the team struggled to keep up.
The style of play from both teams prompted their front office to find a new voice, making the head coach the scapegoat. Moreover, with both Trotz and Cassidy fired, the pressure shifts to the front office to turn things around.
Lamoriello & Sweeney Betting on Themselves
Cassidy and Trotz are two of the most respected and reputable head coaches in the league, and firing them was a questionable decision. Moreover, Islanders general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello and Bruins GM Don Sweeney are betting on themselves this offseason to turn their teams around.
Lamoriello has been part of the front office since 1987 for the New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Islanders, with varying degrees of success. His past success includes three Stanley Cup titles and helping build the Islanders into a Cup contender in the recent seasons, reaching the Semifinal in the 2020 and 2021 Playoffs. However, there have been a handful of mistakes in his unique history in the game, especially with a roster that has struggled. Moreover, at 79-years-old, Lamoriello draws criticism about the game passing him by or that he’s lost touch with the league.
Sweeney, on the other hand, has only been an executive in recent seasons, becoming the Bruins’ general manager in 2015. While he helped turn the team into one of the best in the NHL, reaching the playoffs in each of their last six seasons, including the Stanley Cup Final in 2019, there have been a handful of mistakes that Sweeney has made that set the team back. Notably, in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, his first with the team, the Bruins had three first round draft selections in a row but only managed to draft one player who significantly impacted the team, Jake DeBrusk, while the following two selections were Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor, two top-line forwards.
Both front offices were always perceived as the best in the game, making the right moves in free agency or the right trades at the trade deadline to keep their team competitive. However, with both front offices firing their head coaches, fans are starting to take a second look and question whether Lamoriello and Sweeney have what it takes to allow their teams to rebound.
Where the Islanders & Bruins Differ
The Islanders’ and Bruins’ situations, both from a roster and coaching perspective, have a lot of similarities. However, there’s a striking difference following their exit interviews, as Cassidy thought his job was safe. Instead, the front office fired him, and not only do the Bruins have to regain the trust of the fans but have to gain the trust of their next head coach and possible free agents, making for a difficult offseason ahead.
The Islanders, on the other hand, fired Trotz, a questionable decision considering he turned the team around. However, Lamoriello helped with the transition by not only promoting Lambert but also by keeping the players in mind, hiring a coach beloved by the roster, and with the hope of attracting free agents in the offseason.
Likewise, both teams took a step back this season, but considering how both rosters are built, we’ll see how they rebound. The Islanders relied on their depth to win games, but without star power, didn’t have a player that could lift the team when injuries occurred, or some players struggled. The Bruins, meanwhile, were built on their star power, with a great top line and one of the best defensemen in the league. While four of their five key contributors took up a significant amount of the team’s salary cap, they always gave the team a chance, and as a result, provided the Bruins with the optimism of a rebound.
Both teams are eager to rebound after taking a step back. The Islanders and Bruins looked like two model franchises in the NHL but are in difficult spots. However, there’s plenty of reason to believe both teams will bounce back next season, and with the right moves, be in contention for the Stanley Cup.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.