There will be organizational-wide benefits to this Islanders’ playoff run regardless of how they fare in their second-round series against the Hurricanes.
But nothing that has happened, or will happen, changes coach Barry Trotz’s earlier assessment of where the franchise is in its development toward becoming a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
In January, Trotz opined, “We have to get to the final level where we’re in the playoffs year in and year out and grow to be a contender down the road. There’s still lots of work. We’re probably a year or two away.”
Asked in a private moment by Newsday this week whether the Islanders’ second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division and four-game sweep of the Penguins in the first round has accelerated where he believes the team is in its development, Trotz stuck to his original assessment.
“No, I don’t think it has,” Trotz said. “I think it’s steady progress. The first goal was to make the playoffs this year, just to be a consistent regular-season team, where we had an identity. We had a standard of how we played. We had a structure of how we played and formed an Islanders’ identity. You’re going to come into our building, you know you’re going to have to work. You’re going to have to work hard to score.”
Trotz, in his first season behind the Islanders’ bench after leading the Capitals to the Cup last season, transformed his new team from one that allowed an NHL-worst 293 goals last season – the most in the NHL since 2007 – to one that gave up an NHL-low 196 this season.
He said his first job was to identify the Islanders’ leadership core.
“When you come in and try to do a change of culture, or create an identity, you’re not coaching all 23 guys,” Trotz said. “You figure out who the core is and the guys who have influence and the guys that you know are going to be long-term solutions. Those are the guys that you coach. Because, if you coach them correctly, they actually end up coaching the rest because the rest follow.
“When I was young,” Trotz added, “I tried to coach all 23 and that’s impossible. You learn you only have to coach six or seven really well. If you coach them really well, everything else falls into place.”
But there’s a transitional component to any NHL team in the salary-cap era.
Captain Anders Lee is an impending unrestricted free agent, though Trotz’s words and actions in naming him captain by the end of training camp indicate the Islanders badly want to re-sign him.
Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner is also an impending UFA, as is top-line right wing Jordan Eberle, second-line center Brock Nelson and third-line center Valtteri Filppula.
All fall under Trotz’s umbrella of team leaders.
So, as much as the Islanders have exceeded outside expectations this season, there are no guarantees for next season, only the knowledge that this season has set a strong foundation for the organization.
“It will be important to every individual that is part of this group, be it players, coaches, trainers, managers. Everybody. Wives, girlfriends. All that,” Trotz said. “Because experience, good, bad or indifferent, prepares you for success and if you can avoid some of those landmines or some of those mistakes of the way you were thinking or how you respond, they build character. They build trust in what you believe in. They build confidence and they build a reference file where you can go back to a good place.”
Still, the Islanders won’t sneak up on any team next season, other teams in the Metropolitan Division figure to improve and offseason changes to the Islanders are inevitable.
So, no, Trotz is not ready to declare the Islanders have accelerated their timetable for being a perennial Cup contender. But he is pleased with the progress that’s been made.
From Day 1
Trotz was named a Jack Adams Award finalist on Friday, the honor that goes to the NHL’s top coach, and right wing Cal Clutterbuck said the Islanders saw the benefits the new coaching staff could bring right from the start.
“It was a tough training camp,” Clutterbuck said. “I think he wanted us to know what it would take to get somewhere. It’s hard when you start a season to get it back if things don’t go well. We saw that last year. Things were going well and then things started to not go well and I don’t think we had the understanding and foundation of detail and work ethic. If it doesn’t start from the first day, sometimes it can be hard to get back.
“That first practice and just the way training camp was run really set us up for mentally being able to handle what comes our way,” Clutterbuck added.
Trotz worked hard to instill an “even-keel” attitude with his new team, rather than have it ride emotional highs and lows throughout the grueling season.
Clutterbuck said that paid benefits during their first-round sweep.
“It’s exhausting to ride that wave, especially in the playoffs,” Clutterbuck said. “Through that first series we all really saw what a benefit the even-keel mentality can be for a group. The biggest thing he’s brought to this room is that calmness under pressure.”
For sure, the Capitals have more widely-recognized players than the Hurricanes, starting with Alex Ovechkin. But the Hurricanes dispatched the defending Stanley Cup champions with a 4-3 double overtime win in Game 7 at Washington on Wednesday night.
And Ryan Pulock quickly dispelled the notion the Islanders might be relieved to face the Hurricanes rather than the Capitals when the Islanders defenseman was asked that prior to the second round.
“They have some pretty high-end skill and threats,” Pulock said. “Maybe they don’t have the names like Washington does. Either way, it’s a challenge. It’s a different challenge every team you play because every team has elite players.”
Eight teams remain in the NHL playoffs. Four of them have at least one former Islanders player on their roster. Here’s the list:
Bruins (3) – D Zdeno Chara, G Jaroslav Halak, RW Chris Wagner
Hurricanes (2) – D Calvin de Haan, LW Nino Niederreiter
Stars (1) – LW Blake Comeau
Sharks (1) – C Micheal Haley