Despite getting swept in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the New York Islanders know they made big strides in their turnaround first season under president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz.
Predicted by many experts to miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 12 seasons, the Islanders led the Metropolitan Division for a big chuck of the middle of the season before finishing second at 48-27-7. They followed up their surprising season with a four-game sweep of Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs when everything seemed to be going their way.
After waiting 10 days to start the next round, nothing went New York’s way as the Islanders couldn’t rediscover their scoring touch and were swept by Carolina.
“It didn’t end the way we wanted it, and that’s the part that’s going to sting for a while there,” captain Anders Lee said Monday as the team packed up for the summer at its practice facility in East Meadow, New York. “Those are the kinds of things, the obstacles that individually and as a group power you through the summer and motivate you and bring you back in the fall to be better.”
Free Agency Looms Large
Now, after a 13-win improvement over the previous year — keyed by the defensive-minded system in Trotz’s first year with the team — they head into the off-season with some tough personnel decisions looming as they try to build on their success.
“A lot of stuff we set out to do, we did,” Trotz said. “There was some disappointment where we didn’t go farther than we did. … We started with becoming a competitive team from the get-go that had a good foundation in terms of work ethic, structure, accountability. This group was a special group because they dug in all year. There wasn’t a lot expected from this group and they proved a lot of people wrong.”
However, with several key players — including forwards Lee, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson, and goalie Robin Lehner — headed for free agency, and the need to add a big scorer, the team could have a different look when the players return for training camp in September.
“They did a tremendous job this year,” Lamoriello said of the impending unrestricted free agents. “We’re going to have to see exactly how we can fit them all in. We’d like them all back, without question. But they have to make decisions and we have to make decisions. … We’ll do the best we can.”
Lee seamlessly stepped into the captain’s role following the departure of John Tavares to his hometown Maple Leafs in free agency last summer. Now, it’s Lee’s turn to be free after wrapping up the final season of a four-year, $15 million deal, after finishing with 28 goals and 23 assists.
Following a 23-year stretch in which the Islanders didn’t advance past the first round of the playoffs, they made it to the second round for the second time in four years.
“It’s not good enough just to win once in a while and make the playoffs once every couple of years,” second-year star centre Mathew Barzal said. “We want to be consistent in that, really put the Islanders back on the map as a contending team.”
Some other things to know as the Islanders head into the offseason:
Between the Pipes
Goaltending proved to be the team’s biggest strength after Lehner was signed to pair with Thomas Greiss. Lehner openly talked about his personal issues dealing with panic attacks, alcohol and drug addiction, and also bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD when he joined the team and credited the organization and his new teammates with giving him support.
Greiss and Lehner were solid all season, sharing the William Jennings Trophy for the team allowing the fewest goals in the league. Greiss is under contract for next season, and Lehner finished a one-year, $1.5 million deal he signed last summer. Lehner said his agent hasn’t had any talks with Lamoriello during the season.
Under Trotz, the Islanders went from giving up the most goals in the league a year ago (293) to allowing the fewest this season (191). However, the defensive-minded system also saw their scoring drop from seventh (261) to 22nd (223). In addition to Lee and Nelson, Barzal (18 goals, 44 assists) and Josh Bailey (16 goals, 40 assists) also had 50-point seasons.
Generating offence wasn’t a problem during the season or against Pittsburgh, but it was a big factor in the losses to Carolina as New York totalled just five goals in the four games.
In addition to Lee, Nelson, Eberle and Lehner, the Islanders have several other players who will be free agents.
Valtteri Filppula (17 goals, 14 assists) and Tom Kuhnhackl (four goals, five assists in 39 games) will be unrestricted after making strong contributions in their first seasons in New York, and youngsters Anthony Beauvillier (18 goals, 10 assists), Michael Dal Colle and Tanner Fritz are restricted free agents.
Among the top free agents available the Islanders could target include Columbus’ Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, and Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner.
Waiting for Belmont
The Islanders just finished the first season of an expected three-year arrangement to split home games between the Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center while a new arena is built next to the horse racing track at Belmont. Playoff games were also split between the venues, with the first round at the renovated old Coliseum, and the second round (and any subsequent round if they had advanced) at Barclays.
Construction at the new site is expected to begin soon, and despite some local opposition to the construction, Lamoriello was confident the arena will be built.
“I don’t have any question,” he said. “I would not have come here if there wasn’t going to be a new arena.”
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Vin A. Cherwoo, The Associated Press