A little over a year ago, Lou Lamoriello became the President of Hockey Operations and General Manager of the New York Islanders. Fans immediately jumped for joy as hope for a brighter future set in. Less than a month later, Lamoriello hired Barry Trotz, who was fresh off of a Stanley Cup win with the Washington Capitals.
Even though Lou wasn’t able to re-sign John Tavares, the Islanders were beginning to take shape, however hard it was for the rest of us to see in the beginning. As the summer months faded and the 2018-19 season came into focus, a lot of questions remained, but Lou had a plan.
If you think the term “culture” in sports lacks depth, Lamoriello would partially agree with you. Upon taking control of the team’s hockey operations, Lou spoke with reporters about the changes that needed to take place and said “culture is a very overused word and underdeveloped.” However, even Lou understood the value that change could have on a young Islanders squad that lacked direction and focus over the last two decades-plus. So what was the message that helped create the change in the team’s culture?
Sacrificing individual success for team success.
That recipe seemed to strike a chord with this group, one that Robin Lehner said was full of “Very down-to-earth people” in a recent interview with The Athletic (from ‘Culture change: Inside the Islanders’ locker room and relationships that transformed a season,’ The Athletic NHL – 4/9/19). And outside of Lehner, Casey Cizikas, and Brock Nelson, personal success was certainly put aside. Anders Lee and Mathew Barzal both had down seasons statistically, but their overall level of play and dedication to the team’s strategy helped propel the Islanders to a second place finish in the Metro Division and a second round appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With a season of team success behind them, the Islanders look poised to continue growing and contend for the Stanley Cup in the near future.
Earlier this week, the Islanders signed Nelson to a six-year extension, helping to solidify the team up the middle. That still leaves Lee, Eberle, and Lehner without contracts, along with other key holes that need to be filled. The Islanders’ cap situation also depends on Andrew Ladd and/or Cal Clutterbuck going on the long-term injured reserve list.
The good news is, with the team’s recent success, Trotz behind the bench, and Lou overseeing operations, the Islanders may have an easier time signing some of the league’s top free agents, a serious struggle in years past. Rumors are also flying around the league in regards to restricted free agents and “the year of the offer sheet.” There are a number of teams that have cap issues, suggesting offer sheets and trades may be in abundance beginning at the NHL Draft in June.
The Islanders are still a few pieces away from being a Stanley Cup contender, but it’s clear they’re heading in the right direction. This summer will be critical for an Islanders team that obliterated expectations this season. Can Lou and Trotz recreate the magic?
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.