Isles turn the page following stunning sweep
Enter offseason of uncertainty after inspiring turnaround campaign
The Islanders cleared out their lockers and headed into the offseason Monday at the Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow, N.Y., about three weeks earlier than they would have liked.
Following a startling first-round sweep of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs, the Islanders had the tables turned on them in the Eastern Conference semifinals as the Carolina Hurricanes sent them into an early summer vacation with four consecutive wins of their own.
As players and coaches gathered one last time in 2019, posing for a team picture and emptying the remaining items in their respective lockers, there was certainly plenty of hope to go around after New York went from non-playoff participants the previous two campaigns to 103 points and second place in their division this year.
“Everyone pegged us to be a pick in the lottery,” said Mathew Barzal, who backed up his Calder Trophy-winning season as the league’s top rookie last year by leading the Isles with 62 points during his sophomore campaign.
“For us to have the season that we did is a testament to everyone in this room and to how hard everybody worked,” he added. “We really played with a chip on our shoulder all season. That mindset of being relentless and wanting to win hockey games will go a long way throughout the course of a season. The culture is definitely about winning now.”
There’s no doubting that this was a huge building-block season for the Isles, who went from virtual obscurity on the NHL landscape to seriously competing for the Eastern Conference crown.
They were the highest remaining seed in the East after jettisoning the Penguins, but they only got to play two games at the Barclays Center, both losses to the Hurricanes last week, before being sent packing themselves.
Now, team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello will get back to the business of figuring out exactly whom will be on Long Island or in Downtown Brooklyn next season.
The Isles have a long list of pending unrestricted free agents, most notably team captain and leading goal scorer Anders Lee, reliable veteran winger Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle and Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender Robin Lehner.
“They did a tremendous job this year. We will have to see how we can fit them all in,” Lamoriello said of the free agents-to-be.
“We’d like to have them back without question. They have to make decisions and we have to make decisions, but they are all quality human beings and quality players and they’ve been an integral part of this organization this year.”
In other words, we’ll see how it goes.
Lee could become the second Isles captain to leave in as many years following the defection of former face of the franchise John Tavares to Toronto last summer.
The Minnesota native has tallied at least 25 goals in each of the past three seasons, including a career-best 40 in 2017-18, when the Isles were more of a run-and-gun offense, rather than the defense-first style they thrived with under head coach Barry Trotz this past campaign.
Though Lee doesn’t carry the same clout as Tavares, arguably one of the top 10 players in the sport, he was a major part of this year’s success story.
“You would and could not find a finer captain,” Lamoriello gushed when asked about Lee, who led the Isles with 28 goals. “He did a tremendous job and as I’ve said all along, we’re going to do everything we possibly can to keep him.”
“People know how I feel about this place and right now Lou and my agent are going to figure that out,” Lee said of the upcoming negotiations ahead of the July 1 deadline for UFAs.
Lehner went from being completely out of the league following an epic meltdown during his final days in Buffalo last season to emerging as the key to New York’s turnaround.
The 27-year-old Swede led the league with a .930 save percentage and amassed a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against average just one year after leaving the Sabres amid personal strife that included a bout with substance abuse and being diagnosed as bi-polar.
Lamoriello was able to ink Lehner to a one-year, $1.5 million pact as a reclamation project last summer.
But the Isles will have to ante up and perhaps compete with the rest of the league for Lehner’s services going forward.
“I can’t say enough, I think everyone knows where I stand,” Lehner said Monday when asked if he would like to be back with the Isles for the 2019-20 season.
“I obviously love this group. I like my teammates and the organization and everything. There haven’t been any talks between my camp or the team as of yet. I look forward to seeing what they say and what the future holds.”
What the future holds for the Isles is in the hands of Lamoriello, a Hall of Fame executive who guided the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cup titles and resurrected a previously struggling franchise in Toronto before arriving here.
But Trotz, who orchestrated the greatest defensive turnaround in the NHL in over a century this past season, believes the thing New York needs most next year is scoring punch, something they clearly lacked during the Carolina series after managing just five goals in the four games.
“If you look at the playoffs, we need a little more pop up front,” said Trotz, one of three men nominated for the Jack Adams Trophy as the league’s Coach of the Year.
“That’s hopefully coming in the draft a little bit through some of the kids, free agency, obviously Lou will be looking at that, and obviously our own free agents. Our goaltending seems to be fine, our defense has grown. A little more pop up front. You talk about character and grit we’ve got lots of that. A little more pop if anything.”
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