Poor preseason predictions made by those outside the dressing room are received in one of two ways by the players inside. Either they are ridiculed, then promptly ignored, or they are ridiculed and fuel an us-against-the-world motivation.
Suffice to say, the Islanders greatly exceeded expectations last season, their first under president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz. And the players weren’t shy about reminding others they had.
Entering a new season with essentially the same group, save for two key personnel changes, the Islanders still believe they will be better than some expect.
“We had our expectations last year and we knew what type of group we have,” said Casey Cizikas, who more than doubled his previous career best with 20 goals last season and will once again center the identity-setting line with gritty wings Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. “Now, the whole world knows what type of group we have. Going into this season, we’re just going to try to replicate that and outwork teams.”
The Islanders open the regular season on Friday against the Capitals at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, one of 28 home dates at the venerable barn as compared to 13 at Barclays Center.
Last season, they improved by 23 points to finish second in the Metropolitan Division behind the Capitals, who were led to the Stanley Cup by Trotz in 2018. The Islanders swept the Penguins in the first round before losing to the Hurricanes in four straight.
“Last season, there were a lot of question marks, a lot of new things going on,” Clutterbuck said. “I’m encouraged by the way the guys have come in with the same attitude.”
Lamoriello, as he did at last season’s trade deadline, stayed mostly pat in the offseason. He re-signed key unrestricted free agents Anders Lee (seven years, $49 million), Brock Nelson (six years, $36 million) and Jordan Eberle (five years, $27.5 million) but missed out on marquee UFA Artemi Panarin when the elite playmaker eschewed a more lucrative offer from the Islanders to sign a seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the rival Rangers.
“I think he likes the group we have,” Nelson said. “The chemistry we had last year. It’s a testament to the guys we have and that everybody believes in each other.”
Goalie Semyon Varlamov (four years, $20 million) replaces Robin Lehner after the Vezina Trophy finalist, who shared the Jennings Trophy with Thomas Greiss as the Islanders allowed the fewest goals in the NHL, left for the Blackhawks after unsuccessful negotiations with Lamoriello. Ex-Ranger Derick Brassard (one year, $1.2 million) is the new third-line center with Valtteri Filppula returning to the Red Wings.
“It’s going to be fun,” Josh Bailey said. “We want to keep building. We have a good foundation in place, just keep building off of it.”
Trotz has cautioned this season’s team could be better than last season’s but still finish with fewer points because the rest of the division has improved and because the Islanders won’t surprise anybody.
Several factors will determine whether the Islanders improve.
The Islanders wanted Panarin to infuse more scoring potential from the wings. But the team is also counting heavily on Eberle, whose 19 goals were his fewest since his rookie season with the Oilers in 2010-11 but who was a playoff force against the Penguins with a goal in each game. He will begin the season on Mathew Barzal’s right wing along with Lee.
The goalies must remain healthy and the defense must be as stout as it was last season in limiting odd-man rushes and rebound opportunities.
The power play, now under assistant coach Jim Hiller’s guidance after ranking 29th in the NHL last season under the departed Scott Gomez, must be more of a threat.
“Anders talks about it, how we just feel like we’re a little bit more ahead this year as a team,” said defenseman Devon Toews, whose presence for the full season after notching five goals and 13 assists in 48 games as a rookie will greatly benefit the Islanders. “If we can all just shoulder a little more weight this year and do a little bit more for everyone and the team, it will go a long way.”