Since the summer of 2008, when Garth Snow and Charles Wang undertook the project of rebuilding the Islanders from the inside out, there have been halting steps forward. They were usually followed by big steps back, though, and progress was extremely slow.
The patient approach paid some dividends last season, with the Isles' first playoff berth since 2007 and an attention-getting, six-game loss to the heavily favored Penguins in the opening round.
As the Isles prepare to start training camp on Thursday, the core players are eager to get started and keep their modest momentum from last season going. Instead of fighting to be taken seriously, the Islanders will be fighting to maintain what they earned last year.
"We know failure is not an option," Frans Nielsen said. "I think we just built a lot of confidence in the room last year, convincing ourselves that we're good enough to win in this league. I think it's just a different feel of confidence. It's not like we talked about it, but you can see the way everyone talks about the team."
John Tavares was named captain on Monday, the last bit of summer business from Snow and coach Jack Capuano to signify that the Isles' homegrown core is now in charge. Snow locked up defenseman Travis Hamonic to a seven-year, $27-million deal and Josh Bailey to a five-year, $16.5-million contract. The Isles now have nine players under contract through 2015-16, all of whom are currently under 30.
Mark Streit, the biggest free-agent signing of Snow's GM tenure (five years, $20.5 million back in 2007-08), departed for the rival Flyers, and veteran forward Brad Boyes, who played much of the season on Tavares' wing, left for the Florida Panthers. But the rest of the team that broke through for a playoff berth has returned, with the only NHL additions being one-year free agents Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Peter Regin, both forwards.
Snow also traded disgruntled prospect Nino Niederreiter to the Wild for rugged forward Cal Clutterbuck.
That's all, though. Streit's spot on defense is ticketed for Matt Donovan, who led AHL defensemen in scoring last season; prospects Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson will fight for forward spots, and Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson will battle for a goaltending spot alongside Evgeni Nabokov. This is a team that Capuano and Snow are counting upon to improve from within, as it did a season ago.
"We're kind of on our own now," said Nielsen, the most senior of Snow's core at 29. "It's exciting. All the guys who came here the last four to five years, they're all still here and we've gotten better. We want to get going."
In a conversation with Newsday on Monday, Wang indicated that Snow's way -- retaining drafted players and spurning big-ticket free-agent signings -- will continue even as the team has improved. The owner said the Isles were behind his and Snow's time frame for a turnaround.
"When I look at the plans we had, we're a year off. A year behind," Wang said. "We should have had that season [last year] one year earlier. There's no guarantees, but we think we have pretty good ingredients. The direction, the guiding light to where we're going, that hasn't changed. We want to do it economically, we're not going to throw money at this -- we've seen the failures of all the teams that have tried that. We want to set a core, a value system, a culture for a team, a group of guys together, that will last longer.
"I think we've done that and we'll keep doing that."