“Can ]the Islanders] be better than last year?” Mike Milbury said, repeating a question on an NBC conference call Monday to promote the start of the NHL season. “I think so.”
Still, while Milbury and fellow analysts Ed Olczyk and Patrick Sharp expressed cautious optimism about a team that largely returned intact, the consensus was that goaltending and scoring punch are areas in which the Islanders must prove themselves – with Mathew Barzal being a key piece of the latter.
“The one question for me, clearly, is they had incredible goaltending last year, and will that hold up is a major factor,” said Milbury, a former Islanders general manager and coach. “You know you have good coaching, you know you have a pretty good core. But one of the things that got them to where they were last year was the superlative level of goaltending, and I would have some concerns in that department.”
Milbury added that if general manager Lou Lamoriello “identifies weaknesses . . . he’s likely to make something happen in order to bolster his team. But this is a good, solid team that should be in the playoffs and I look forward to seeing how they emerge.
“It was one of the great stories last year, the Islanders, of how [coach] Barry Trotz left a championship team and came to Long Island and made them one of the stingiest teams you’ve ever seen play the game. So, good one to watch, especially in goal.”
Said Olczyk: “There’s no doubt that Mr. Lamoriello was very aggressive in trying to do some things and getting Anders Lee signed obviously was huge, to get him back in the mix. They lost [goaltender Robin] Lehner to a free-agent one-year deal with the Blackhawks.
“So, look, they’re going to be in every game, just because of how well they’re able to defend . . . On the back end, a kid like [Devon] Toews, I mean, he has really blossomed into a really solid defenseman to complement what they have going there.
“A guy like Barzal, can he take his game to another level? They’re going to be another year removed [from] losing [John] Tavares. So I just think that the way they play, they’re going to be in every game.
“They may not generate as much offense as maybe they would like, but if you can play good ‘D’ and get consistent goaltending, which you could argue, they’re going to be in every game just because of Barry Trotz and his system.”
Added Sharp: “I think it’s a good thing that they got a few guys signed, retained a bunch of their forwards in the offseason, starting with their captain, Anders Lee. It’s good to have a leadership base to your group and to have a guy locked up for seven years at some pretty good money who’s going to patrol the front of the net and score a lot of goals on that power play. That’s an area that the Islanders are going to have to take a step in their development.
“Going back to the playoffs, they’re a shutdown team, they make you fight for every inch, scoring chances are at a premium when you play against the New York Islanders. But when you look at guy like Mat Barzal, who for me is ready to take a huge jump in his game, he’s been an explosive rookie, he had a good season last year with a new coach and a new system to adjust to. Now is the year where I think he steps into a big role, scores a lot of goals, making plays. I mean, he’s fun to watch. Every time he’s on the ice, his speed is noticeable, and he’s making things happen.
“And there’s a defenseman on the back end, [Ryan] Pulock, who was getting better and better as the playoffs were going along. I look for those two guys to help the Islanders get back in the playoffs.”