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No Tavares, no problem for revamped Isles

Franchise eager to prove it can thrive without long-time captain

October 3, 2018 By John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
With John Tavares off to Toronto, Mathew Barzal, the NHL’s reigning Calder Trophy winner, has been thrust into the role of face for the franchise for the New York Islanders.  AP Photo by Adam Hunger
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The New York Islanders aren’t yearning for their former captain.

Instead, they are eager to prove they can thrive in his absence.

“We have four lines that can move and some big bodies and guys that play hard,” said reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal as the John Tavares-less Islanders prepared for Thursday night’s regular-season opener in Carolina.

“I think we’re going to surprise some people and be tough to play against.”

Tough to play against is fine, but can these Islanders, who endured a turbulent offseason that saw the face of the franchise take a seven-year deal with Toronto while the front-office and coaching staff received a complete makeover, return to the playoffs for the first time since their inaugural 2015-16 campaign here in our fair borough?

Tavares, who kept the Isles waiting for nearly two years for his “Decision” before defecting north of the border, was, for all intents and purposes, the team’s most iconic player since the halcyon days of the 1980s, when New York hung four Stanley Cup banners at the Nassau Coliseum.

In the years preceding the arrival of new team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz, the Isles seemed to make every major move and decision, including building a state-of-the-art arena in Elmont, N.Y., with Tavares in mind.

But those days are over, and the Isles must return to NHL relevance without the two-time Hart Trophy finalist who chose to accept $77 million to play for his hometown Maple Leafs over $88 million to remain with the only franchise he has known since being selected first overall in the 2009 NHL Draft.

New York did not reach the postseason in either of Tavares’ final two years here in Brooklyn, but with the team slated to play 20 of its 41 home games at the renovated Coliseum beginning this season, the Isles are hopeful that the loss of their captain will simply create greater opportunities for other players.

“We have a lot of building pieces here and a lot of good players,” said forward Jordan Eberle, who was signed by former general manager Garth Snow last summer to play alongside Tavares.

“Obviously we’re being ranked as an underdog team, but we’re looking at it as motivation,” he added. “You look at a lot of teams that have done that in the past, Vegas is a perfect example. When you don’t have a lot of pressure you can do a lot of good things, we’re looking forward to that.”

Eberle is likely to be paired with center Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, who led the team with a career-high 40 goals last season, on the team’s second line.

The top line will consist of Barzal, the NHL’s Rookie of the Year with a team-high 85 points a season ago, Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey.

The reformed third line, formerly the fourth, of recently reacquired Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas will be expected to provide some offensive punch for a club whose biggest problem has clearly been on the defensive end.

Though New York finished tied for seventh in the league in goals per game at 3.18 last season, it also allowed the most shots against (35.6 per game) and goals (3.57) in the NHL.

With veteran netminder Thomas Greiss coming off a league-worst 3.82 goals-against average among qualifying players and 27-year-old Robin Lehner trying to serve as his likely back-up, the Isles are still without a premium goalie as they enter the campaign.

How the Isles’ defensemen play in front of their own net, however, will be just as important as how well Greiss or Lehner perform between the pipes.

Returning veteran blue-liners Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, neither of whom did much to curb the steady onslaught of rubber flying into the New York net last season, must have bounce-back years.

The team’s young blueliners like Ryan Pulock, coming off a 10-goal campaign, and Adam Pelech will be expected to take a step up, especially in the department of blocking pucks before they even reach Greiss or Lehner.

All the negativity that has surrounded the Isles in advance of this critical season has only served to stoke the fire of a team desperate to prove it can’t be derailed by the loss of one player, even if he was one of the best to ever don the Orange and Blue.

“We’ve always kind of been an underdog,” Clutterbuck noted. “Even when we’ve gone through stretches where we proved to people that we shouldn’t be, we are still labeled that way. We are who we are, and I think we’re very content with being quietly confident about what we’re able to do and trying to execute it.”

“A lot has been said that’s fueled us, but the biggest fueling factor is we’ve gone home early the past two years,” Lee added. “We have work to do to get back to where we want to be.”   

That work begins in earnest Thursday night at 7 p.m., in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Isle Have Another: Following their season opener in Carolina, the Isles will return to Barclays Center, where they will play their first 11 regular-season games this year. The home opener will be Saturday night against Nashville, the team Trotz coached for 15 seasons before spending the last four in Washington. … The Isles will play their final 10 home contests at the Coliseum, a.k.a. NYCB Live, in Uniondale, N.Y. … The Isles are 9-19-8 all-time in road season openers.


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