The Islanders’ veterans reported for training camp on Thursday while their former captain John Tavares was doing so with the Maple Leafs.
And Mathew Barzal, best positioned to replace Tavares as the Islanders’ No. 1 center and face of the franchise, best summed up his teammates’ feeling that the past is just that and this training camp under new president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and new coach Barry Trotz represents a new beginning for the team.
“John is a great player and it’s tough to replace him but now that’s over with and we’ve got to look ahead,” Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in June, said on Thursday at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow. “Yeah, I’m excited for the challenge and we’ve got a lot of other guys here that I’m assuming are excited to fill a bigger role and maybe get some more power-play time or some more ice time. A lot of guys are going to have to step up.”
The first on-ice sessions are on Friday and the Islanders, who have missed the playoffs the past two seasons and won just one playoff round since 1993, open their eight-game preseason schedule against the Flyers on Sunday afternoon at Nassau Coliseum. The regular season opens on Oct. 4 at Carolina.
By then Trotz, coming off a Stanley Cup with the Capitals, will have a better grasp of his new players’ strengths and tendencies.
But Trotz is encouraged by what he’s seen from Barzal, who had 22 goals and 63 assists in 82 games last season.
“You don’t win rookie of the year without talent,” Trotz said. “There’s lots of growth in his game on both sides of the puck. He’s going to be an effective player for us for hopefully a long, long time. He has the ability to be a high-end, upper-echelon player in the league. He wants that challenge.”
Barzal formed an effective second line with Anthony Beauvillier and Jordan Eberle on his wings last season. Whether that unit ascends intact to be the Islanders’ top line remains to be seen.
But there’s no doubt teams will be keying on Barzal more this season with Tavares gone.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Eberle said. “The biggest thing for him with John leaving is we’re going to get a lot of tougher matchups and things are going to be a lot harder. I know he understands that.”
“The main thing is to move on as soon as possible,” Beauvillier added. “I think we have a lot of depth up front. It’s not going to change our scoring ability. It’s going to be different without [Tavares] but we have a good leadership group in this room. It’s not going to take long. Guys have kind of moved on already.”
Moving on for the Islanders, though, may not include naming a new captain.
“I don’t know if we’ll have a captain or not,” Trotz said. “To me, leadership doesn’t have to be one guy. It can be a group. To me, leadership is about driving the group. Leadership, to me, is about caring about yourself last.”
Tavares was named the Islanders’ 14th captain in 2013 and they have gone without one only once – in 1996-97 – since joining the NHL in 1972.