With core intact, Islanders look to build on postseason run
Barry Trotz insists he still hasn’t gotten over the New York Islanders’ loss in the Eastern Conference finals.
''I don’t think you get over those things very easily,’' the coach said on a Zoom call with reporters. ''On my deathbed that’ll be one of the visions that’ll go through my head, you know, we didn’t beat the Lightning. It doesn’t go away.’'
After winning just one playoff series in 25 years, the Islanders have advanced further in the postseason in each of the first two years under Trotz. Now, with their core intact, they’ll be looking to try again for a championship run that has eluded the franchise since winning four straight Stanley Cup titles in the 1980s.
''Hopefully we can take the next step,’' Trotz said. ''That’s our goal.’'
In the first year with Trotz, who joined the Islanders after leading Washington to the Stanley Cup championship in 2018, they reached the second round of the playoffs. Last summer, they went one series further.
Islanders captain Anders Lee believes the team can build on its experience.
''When you have a run like that I think it is always disappointing to have it end in any way, but it’s also the step we took was inspiring in a way, too, and extremely motivational,’' he said.
With largely the same roster he’s had the previous two years, Trotz believes the continuity could be advantageous in a shortened training camp - 10 days with no exhibition games.
''It gives us a starting base where other teams may have a lot of different personnel,’' he said. ''They’re putting essentially new lines together. I don’t have to do that to start.’'
It won’t be easy in a tight East Division with a 56-game division-only schedule that gets underway on Jan. 14 with the first of two games in three days on the road against the Rangers.
Star center Mathew Barzal, a restricted free agent, remained unsigned and off the ice when the team opened training camp. Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said Barzal is on Long Island and ready to join the team when he signs.
The Islanders know how important he is to the team, but Trotz and the players aren’t dwelling on his absence.
''Any player, it doesn’t matter if it’s Mathew or anybody who’s on our club, when they’re out it does affect the group,’' Trotz said. ''So you ask other players to fill in that void and get the job done. To me, it’s opportunity.’'
BETWEEN THE PIPES
Semyon Varlamov emerged as the No. 1 goalie after going 19-14-0 with a 2.62 goals-against average in his first season in New York while splitting time with Thomas Greiss. Varlamov then went 11-7 with a 2.14 GAA during the Islanders’ postseason. Greiss is now gone and Ilya Sorokin, the touted Russian who starred in the KHL, is set to debut in the NHL.
Varlamov, who has played in the KHL, knows his new teammate will have to adjust to some differences in the NHL.
''There’s definitely more traffic in front of the net for NHL goalies,’' Varlamov said. ''It’s really hard to find the puck in this league.’'
Trotz split games between his goalies in the first two years - first with Robin Lehner and Greiss, and then with Varlamov and Greiss. With limited travel in a condensed time frame, Trotz believes he could use the same goalie in back-to-back games more often.
PRAISE FOR PAGEAU
Jean-Gabriel Pageau solidified the Islanders’ lineup in the middle after he was acquired from Ottawa at the trade deadline. He then came through with eight goals and three assists and solid all-around play in the postseason.
Now, the Islanders are looking forward to a full season with the 28-year-old, who signed a six-year extension immediately after the trade.
''(He) came in and was effective from Day 1,’' Lee said. ''The impact he had on our team throughout the playoffs, whether it’s big goals or his 200-foot game, we don’t make that run without him and the way he played.’'
The defense will have a slightly different look after Johnny Boychuk retired due to an eye injury and Devon Toews was traded. It gives youngster Noah Dobson a chance to have a bigger role, as well as veteran Andy Greene - a trade-deadline acquisition, who was re-signed - and Sebastian Aho.
With veteran Derick Brassard gone after one season with the Islanders - and if Barzal’s absence lingers - promising prospects Kieffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom, Otto Koivula and Dmytro Timashov could get some opportunities. Depth forward Tom Kuhnhackl (shoulder) will also be out until February.
The Islanders have two five-game road trips, and their longest homestand is seven games from Feb. 25-March 11 and a six-game stretch in the beginning of April. They have games on consecutive nights eight times, with the same opponent in both five times.