It was readily apparent that once he got to know them after taking the job in June, Barry Trotz liked this group of Islanders. That’s not always a given in the NHL. Some groups, some seasons, just don’t mesh with some coaches.
But what is a given in the salary-capped league is that change is inevitable from season to season. It’s just a matter of how much or how little.
The Islanders will conduct their exit interviews Monday in East Meadow after Friday night’s season-ending 5-2 loss to the Hurricanes in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series.
Key questions on unrestricted free agents — notably captain Anders Lee and goalie Robin Lehner — must be addressed. President and general manager Lou Lamoriello likely will make a trade or two. An evaluation on which prospects can compete for roster spots will be made.
“I think this group grew,” Trotz said after Friday night’s loss. “This group became a resilient group. This group learned the value of accountability. They learned the value of work. They learned the value of predictability, the value of coming to work and being really good pros.”
It will be a more stable offseason than the last one, when Lamoriello and Trotz were hired to replace Garth Snow and Doug Weight, respectively.
The new management spent much of last offseason and into this season changing the organizational culture to one of more accountability and predictability.
The Islanders finished second in the Metropolitan Division with 103 points — 23 more than last season — and allowed an NHL-low 196 goals after giving up 293 in 2017-18, the most in the NHL since 2007. Lehner and Thomas Greiss shared the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed. The Isles earned home-ice advantage in a series for the first time since 1988 and swept the Penguins in the first round.
Lehner is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie and the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication after battling addiction and mental-health issues and going through rehab.
“Going into this position this year, quite honestly, I thought goaltending would be not one of our strengths,” Trotz said. “I wasn’t sure if defense would be one of our strengths just because it was hard to evaluate that group based on how they played last year.
“I thought our forward group, we knew that we were a little bit lean in some of the high-skilled positions. But those are coming. We’ve got some good kids coming.”
Finnish-born power forward Otto Koivula, a fourth-round pick in 2016, had 21 goals and 25 assists in 69 games for Bridgeport in his first season in North America. Scouting reports indicate he could develop into a solid third-liner in the NHL.
Oliver Wahlstrom, the 11th overall pick in 2018, had a disappointing freshman season at Boston College with eight goals and 11 assists in 36 games before signing his entry-level deal and joining the Sound Tigers. He had two goals and two assists in Bridgeport’s five-game playoff run.
Kieffer Bellows, the 19th overall pick in 2016, had 12 goals and seven assists in 73 games in his first AHL season.
Then there’s Josh Ho-Sang, the 28th overall pick in 2014, who is an impending restricted free agent and seemingly did not impress the new Isles management. He had eight goals and 35 assists in 56 games for Bridgeport and a goal and an assist in 10 games for the Isles.
Any additions to next season’s team will be trying to top the standard set this season. “The first thing was to make the playoffs, be competitive and come around culturally,” Trotz said. “Be a team that has expectations when you drop the puck that you’re going to win hockey games.”