By Jeff Capellini
It’s a familiar refrain that is often described as hyperbole.
“This is the most important season in Islanders history.”
Well, this time it might actually be true.
Let’s face it, this franchise seems to be in a perpetual state of pushing the stone up the hill. On the rare occasion over the last quarter century that the Isles have made some headway, they’ve lost their balance and basically been put out to pasture by that very same stone.
You know what I’m getting at. One playoff series win since 1993. Nine postseason appearances in the last 25 years. A rebuild that is still somehow a thing, nearly 10 years after it started.
Combine the constant arena uncertainty that hangs over this team like impending doom with the stress that comes with imagining potential free agent John Tavares playing elsewhere next season and it’s all enough to make the fans of this once-dominant franchise want to watch every game from their local watering hole.
The Islanders really need to have a killer season. It’s pretty much that simple. When they hit the ice on Friday night in Columbus it has to mark the start of something truly new.
That would mean solidifying their place in the Eastern Conference sooner rather than later and then not only getting into the playoffs, but actually making a run that lasts more than a week or two.
Do they have the personnel to do all that? I believe so. But I must warn you: last October many media types had the audacity to call for a regression off the team’s trip to the second round of the playoffs the previous spring.
And regress the Islanders sure did.
Even though they played their best hockey at the end of the season, it wasn’t enough to secure a third straight postseason appearance. And while those same media types haven’t been the doomsayers they were prior to the start of the 2016-17 season, I don’t see many calling for a run by the blue and orange to the conference finals.
Does that mean it can’t be done? No. But it seems to indicate that the majority of people who think the Isles can be something significant this season probably reside in the locker room or are related to the players.
This is what cerebral and fiery Doug Weight is up against. No longer the interim guy, Weight getting the full-time head coach gig might have been the smartest decision the Isles made throughout the entire offseason.
While so much was made of general manager Garth Snow adding proven winger Jordan Eberle to the mix, and then reportedly striking out multiple times in an attempt to pry stud center Matt Duchene away from the Colorado Avalanche, the elevation of Weight put in place a guy who probably had the best season of all the Islanders in 2016-17.
New York went 24-12-4 after Weight replaced Jack Capuano in mid-January. If not for the chasm the club fell into during the season’s first two months, the Isles might have been a team to reckon with come April.
Weight’s uptempo philosophy was met with approval by basically everyone. The Isles moved the puck well, they had a better-than-average even-strength offense, and received, at times, spectacular goaltending.
The problems were more self-inflicted, like the ridiculous three-goalie system, for example. Or defense pairings that sometimes forgot how to play in their own end, and a power play that would make you want to throw stuff at the television.
The Isles should continue to be successful at the things they were good at last season, and I think they’ve made strides to correct the areas in which they struggled. There are a lot of new voices on the coaching staff that are capable of taking the pressure off Weight. The Isles’ revamped crop of assistants — Kelly Buchberger, Luke Richardson, Scott Gomez, and Fred Brathwaite — all enjoyed some level of success as players. Trust me, that type of know-how tends to go with you when you put on a jacket and tie.
As for the roster, the Islanders appear to have a fine mix of youth and experience. Weight has made it clear that those who produce will play, and he has no intention of letting age or past success influence his decisions. That is a refreshing take, given the hesitancy of others who have patrolled the Isles’ bench over the years.
The Islanders are starting the season with arguably the best of their farm system in tow. Forwards Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Ho-Sang made the big club, and, judging by how they played in the preseason, are probably here to stay. Weight currently has eight defenseman to choose from, but the guy to watch is Ryan Pulock. Anyone not named Nick Leddy should be wary of that youngster stealing their ice time.
And while “the kids, the kids, the kids” is usually the dominant talking point among fans on social media, the Islanders have plenty of capable veterans. Sure, Tavares will start the season between Eberle and Anders Lee, but don’t sleep on players like Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera, who are now a year removed from the confusion that often comes with being the new guys. They both were excellent during the second half last season and there’s no reason why they can’t be consistently good over 82 games in 2017-18.
Also, look for Cal Clutterbuck to be extremely motivated off a down year and for Casey Cizikas to grow further into that Swiss Army knife-type role he started to play last season.
If Barzal picks up where he left off in the preseason and enigmatic Brock Nelson doesn’t disappear for any considerable length of time, the Islanders should be a very deep offensive club.
Defensively, health will play a huge role in just how under siege veteran goalies Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss will be. The Isles always seem to lose someone they can’t afford to lose on their blue line. But the good news is behind Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey, they have several capable guys, including the veteran Dennis Seidenberg and developing Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield.
With the exception of Eberle and a few of the kids, these guys all know each other. Continuity and familiarity could go a long way toward determining if the Isles get off to the fast start they crave. There’s simply no way they will survive another 6-10-4 first quarter of the season, not in the brutal Metropolitan Division, where seemingly every team is either a Stanley Cup contender or capable of making the playoffs.
So, yeah, this season is the most important in team history. Each one should be viewed that way, especially when there isn’t much of a recent body of work to fall back on.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN