The hockey world does not know quite what to make of these Islanders.
Sure, many people — opponents, fans, journalists, sportsbooks — think they should be OK, what with coming off a 103-point season and making so few changes that the budget for new locker room nameplates presumably went almost untouched.
And yet . . . There is something about them that seems to give observers pause, based on the buzz — or lack thereof — that surrounded them before Friday night’s season-opening, 2-1 loss to the Capitals at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum.
Part of it is that in addition to not degrading the roster they also did not improve it, while some of their neighbors did, at least on paper. Part of it surely is the Islanders’ meh branding problem of 3 ½ decades’ duration.
But here we are, as they begin another season, and it is as if last season did not happen.
The opener did feature some not-so-great signs that were in keeping with preseason concerns. The goaltender who replaced Robin Lehner, Semyon Varlamov, mostly looked good, but the first goal he gave up was a softie.
And the offense that failed the Islanders at times last season did so again, even as the defense did a good job against the high-powered Caps.
Coach Barry Trotz called it “a good first test, for sure. It’s a pretty good watermark.”
Now, about those preseason predictions: To make this fair, I did not hunt for negative Islanders reviews in national media, but rather took the first two that came to mind.
First, Sports Illustrated: Its predicted Metropolitan Division standings have the Devils fifth, Islanders sixth and Rangers seventh.
Second, TSN, which is a Canadian television network and thus must know hockey, right? Its power rankings have the Devils 18th, the Islanders 19th and the Rangers 20th.
What about the sportsbooks? Again, let’s take the first one we googled for odds to win the Stanley Cup. Vegas Insider has the Devils at 25-1, the Rangers at 30-1 and the Islanders at 40-1. Yikes.
Look, nobody-thought-we-could-do-it narratives already were old for me before the Islanders played their first game, 47 years ago on Monday.
So it is with great reluctance that I go down this road. But the Islanders used it to their advantage last season, and here they are again.
Adding to the new-is-good vibe is the fact the Rangers’ top two veteran additions — Artemi Panarin, whom the Islanders also pursued, and Jacob Trouba — scored in Thursday night’s opener against the Jets.
“Honestly, I think we’re always trying to prove something here,” captain Anders Lee said after the Friday morning skate. “We never really get those looks or whatnot, and that’s fine. We know what we have in this room, just like we did at the beginning of last year.”
Said Matt Martin, “I don’t think we care too much about the outside hockey world, to be honest with you. Maybe when you’re younger you pay attention to that stuff.”
This all will be decided on the ice, of course. But as the Islanders begin the long road back to the second round of the playoffs to try to get it right this time, they have more skeptics than they deserve.
Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko might be the near future in New York-area hockey, but the Islanders are the present.
“We’re focused on ourselves,” Martin said. “We’re not worried about what everybody else has to say . . . We’re looking to build off last year. Like I said, everything else is just noise.”
Islanders fans tried to help with some noise on Friday, but the home team went down with a whimper during a lackluster third period, then spoke of doing better against the Jets on Sunday.
“There’s a lot of hockey left,” Lee said. Eighty-one regular-season games, to be exact, which is plenty of time to force everyone else to pay attention again.