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Veteran leadership also brings win-now pressure for Islanders

Islanders left wing Matt Martin sets before a

Islanders left wing Matt Martin sets before a faceoff against the Capitals in the first period at Nassau Coliseum on April 22. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

There he was, none other than Anders Lee, on Monday morning in Boston, skating on his own after Islanders teammates had completed an optional skate, in the early stages of his eventual return from a torn ACL three months ago.

He cannot help on the ice in a second-round playoff series against the Bruins, but seeing the captain in a practice jersey was a reminder that he has been around the team all along – and a reminder of an Islanders strength.

That strength is leadership. All good teams have it to a degree, and unlike in high school or college, these are grown men and professionals, and thus largely self-motivated.

But when done correctly, it can and does provide an edge at a sport’s highest levels, especially in a tense situation such as against the Bruins, in a series that is tied entering Game 5 on Monday night.

The Islanders went through what has been a successful leadership change off the ice three years ago, with the arrivals of Lou Lamoriello as team president and Barry Trotz as coach.

But those additions roughly coincided with a challenge: The departure of the franchise’s resident superstar and longtime captain, John Tavares, via free agency to the Maple Leafs.

"Probably one of the most important decisions we had to make when John Tavares left to go to Toronto is, who was going to be the next captain?" Trotz said on Sunday.

"You had to get that right, and I think we did. We did with Anders Lee and guys like [alternate captain] Josh Bailey. I didn’t really know any of these guys."

Trotz had plenty of respected figures in the dressing room to lean on, and still does.

"Everything from the voice in the room, to respect in the room, to how they play, it didn’t matter the role," he said. "We have some leaders, a guy like, for example, Matt Martin. He doesn’t need an ‘A’ [on his jersey], but he’s one of our leaders in our room.

"So it was identifying who’s going to carry the message forward . . . You had to pick the right leaders so that they can get everybody to follow.

"To me, good leaders are an extension of the coaching staff and I think we’ve got some good leaders. That’s where it starts. It’s a gradual thing. You have to work at it. You have to have success and you have to get to the playoffs and you have to have success in the playoffs and we’ve been able to do that."

The extended playoff run last season in the Toronto and Edmonton "bubbles" fostered even more bonding and helped integrate a newcomer such as Jean-Gabriel Pageau, now one of the team’s most important players.

Trotz said his biggest young star, Mathew Barzal, 24, still is growing into a leadership role, something he expects to come as Barzal matures into an elder statesman.

But that notion highlights the only downside of having such a veteran-heavy team: There is pressure on the Islanders to win a Stanley Cup in the near future, before the gang inevitably breaks up.

Travis Zajac, 36, was impressed with the culture and leadership when he arrived in April after having spent his entire career with the Devils.

"It’s been a great experience," he said. "I came from a team where if you weren’t under 25, you didn’t fit in, but here it’s a little different.

"It’s a veteran team and they play with structure. They play with commitment, and it’s an easy group to come in and insert yourself, because they’re all smart hockey players. They’ve been around."

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