Many of the questions about this upcoming season for the Islanders revolve around how the franchise can recover from John Tavares’ departure. Except to the players. To them, being asked about their former captain is the only time his departure is mentioned.
It’s clearly a new-look Islanders with Lou Lamoriello, who won three Stanley Cups with the Devils, assuming control as president and general manager and hiring Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz. Calder Trophy-winning Mathew Barzal is the presumptive new face of the franchise as the No. 1 center and successor to Tavares as the team’s superstar.
“It’ll end when you guys stop asking,” right wing Josh Bailey said, laughing, when asked how long Tavares’ absence would be a topic this season. “For us, that’s hockey. That’s the way this business works. We move forward, he moves forward. We’re worried about what goes on in here. We like what we’ve seen so far.”
Tavares returning to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs via free agency was part of the organizational seismic shifts this past offseason. Two straight seasons out of the playoffs and just four postseason appearances and one series win in former general manager Garth Snow’s 12 seasons in charge finally prompted ownership to make a change.
“I just think everyone came in knowing there’s so many changes and knowing we had to bear down,” said Barzal, the biggest reason for organizational optimism after compiling 22 goals and 63 assists to earn rookie of the year honors. “With John leaving, there’s a lot of opportunities for guys. I just think everyone came in with an open mind and ready to compete.”
“I think there’s just a lot of potential we have within us,” added left wing Anders Lee, who set career highs last season with 40 goals and 62 points. “Barry’s been grabbing onto us, opening some doors. Kind of pushing us to a point where we know we have an extra step. I think that’s where we’re going to surprise some people. We have some familiar faces from the years prior but we’re going to be different.”
In short, they need to be because last season’s combination of a potent offense coupled with non-existent defense, goaltending and penalty killing was a recipe for failure.
The Islanders scored 261 goals but gave up an NHL-worst 293, while their penalty kill operated at 73.2 percent, the worst in the league in nearly 30 years.
So, Lamoriello imported former Senators and Sabres goalie Robin Lehner to form a tandem with returning netminder Thomas Greiss and signed veteran free agents Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov to help the penalty kill.
“I watched a lot of their games last year,” said Lehner, who during training camp acknowledged his past battles with alcohol and pill addiction and mental health issues. “It was open hockey last year. It was a lot of go-go-go offense and there was nothing back. That’s not going to be the case this year.”
“Already you can tell there have been changes defensively,” Barzal added. “Barry has been around the league a lot and won with the systems he’s got and he is trying to implement them here. It’s going to be a process. We know it’s not going to just click right away, but we’re just trying to get better day by day and be more attentive defensively.”
Barzal’s acclimation to being The Man this season will be as closely watched as Trotz’s efforts ito mprove the team’s defense.
Barzal, who centered a potent second line last season between left wing Anthony Beauvillier and Jordan Eberle, now must contend with facing tougher defensive matchups centering the top line, with Beauvillier again on his wing but with Bailey potentially replacing Eberle on the right side.
Barzal said he welcomes the challenge of facing the tougher matchups. But the 21-year-old also knows there are adjustments to be made to his freewheeling style that can produce brilliant skating and stickhandling moves.
“There were things in my game last year like holding onto the puck a long time,” Barzal said. “A lot of my turnovers came from just trying to hold onto it and just trying to do too much. Simple is better sometimes. Last year, I’d make a flashy play and it would work two out of five times. I want to get that down, make head’s up smarter plays.”