There was plenty of competition in training camp but not many spots open as coach Barry Trotz knew he wanted to start the season with the Anders Lee-Mathew Barzal-Jordan Eberle and Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck lines intact. Brock Nelson, back with a six-year, $36 million deal, is the other top-six center and will likely have Josh Bailey on one wing. Ex-Ranger Derick Brassard, on a one-year, $1.2 million deal after splitting last season between the Penguins, Panthers and Avalanche, will replace Valtteri Filppula and is also expected to be used on both the power play and penalty kill. Anthony Beauvillier and Leo Komarov, also a key penalty killer, could start on his wings as Brassard looks to regain his scoring consistency.
Barzal, at 22 entering his third NHL season, saw his production dip from his rookie-of-the-year 85 points to 62 points last season on 18 goals and 44 assists. But his willingness to alter his game to Trotz’s defense-first approach played a role and both Barzal and Trotz believe he was a better player last season than in his sensational debut. His numbers could certainly rise this season, especially if Eberle, re-signed for five years, $27.5 million, produces from the start of the season as he did in last season’s final weeks and with four goals in the first-round sweep of the Penguins. Michael Dal Colle, Tom Kuhnhackl, Josh Ho-Sang and Oliver Wahlstrom were pushing for playing time in training camp. And Andrew Ladd (knee) will eventually be around, too.
The blue-line corps, its depth and ability to be the backbone of the organizational commitment to tight defensive play, is the Islanders’ biggest strength and who would have thought that would have become the case as the team allowed an NHL-high 293 goals in 2017-18. But the Islanders have six veterans — Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk and Thomas Hickey — who have been reliable in the top six. Mayfield and Pelech’s very noticeable improvements were among the most significant developments last season and Pulock is a legitimate No. 1 defenseman and power-play threat. Devon Toews altered the team’s dynamic when he was recalled midseason with his skating, puckhandling and power-play acumen and should only improve in his first full NHL season. And prized prospect Noah Dobson, 19, could push one of the returners to the bench with his puck management poise and offensive-zone potential. Pelech-Pulock, Leddy-Dobson, Toews-Mayfield could be the opening-night pairs.
Thomas Greiss has a new partner in ex-Avalanche No. 1 netminder Semyon Varlamov after Greiss and Robin Lehner, now with the Blackhawks, shared the Jennings Trophy as the Islanders allowed the fewest goals in the NHL last season. Greiss, 33, in the final season of a three-year, $10 million deal, improved by 10 wins last season while increasing his save percentage from .892 to .927 and lowering his goals-against average from 3.82 to 2.28. Varlamov, 31, who signed a four-year, $20 million deal, lost his starting job — partially because of injuries — to Philipp Grubauer in Colorado while compiling a 20-19-9 mark with a 2.87 GAA and .909 save percentage last season. Trotz does not adhere to a strict rotation, instead starting the hot hand, but it’s likely the two will split the games fairly evenly if healthy.