The New York Islanders obviously fell agonizingly short of the ultimate goal to win a Stanley Cup when they couldn’t dethrone the Tampa Bay Lightning last season in the semifinals.
But inching ever closer and handing the Lightning their most competitive fight along their way to a second consecutive Stanley Cup title seems to only have emboldened Isles President Lou Lamoriello that this is this is the year for his gritty hockey club.
It was clear in the way Uncle Lou and Co. managed the salary cap to retain players they recently traded for like Kyle Palmieri, re-sign their own guys like Casey Cizikas, Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin, and bring in experienced, veteran hands for a Cup run like former longtime NHL captains Zdeno Chara and Zach Parise.
With the Lightning weakened after roster downgrades due to the salary cap and the rest of the East wide open, it’s abundantly clear the Islanders are going for it this upcoming season with a hardnosed, old-school approach and a deep, well-coached hockey team that also has Barry Trotz pushing buttons from the bench.
The latest move was the Chara signing to a one-year contract, on one hand a sentimental move where the towering D-man can end things where it all began for him with the Islanders and on the other a perfect fit for a disciplined, punishing defender that can still intimidate and shut teams down with his penalty killing muscle.
“It’s always hard to play against the Islanders,” admitted Chara, who might as well have been describing himself when expounding on qualities he admires with the Islanders. “They’re always on you. They play a very heavy game and a grinding game. They don’t give up many chances, many goals. It’s a very solid group with strong leadership and a strong core of players that have been with the Islanders for a long time.”
There’s little doubt the 44-year-old Chara, like his old Hall of Fame teammate Mark Recchi, is looking to end his own HOF career on the ultimate winning note with a Stanley Cup championship, a clear motivating factor for the 6-foot-9 stopper joining the Isles.
The 37-year-old Parise sounded a similar tone as a 16-year veteran in search of his first Stanley Cup amidst his twilight years, and more than happy to join up with his old boss in New Jersey, Lamoriello, in order to achieve hockey immortality.
“I know going into the season what their expectations are and my expectations are going in and fitting in on a really good team,” said Parise. “And whatever is asked you do it to the best of your ability. They know the type of player that I am, I know the type of player that I am, so there are no secrets there.
“We just want to be a part of what they have there already. I think with almost having gone (to the Islanders) a couple of years ago I’ve just been watching the team from afar. Knowing Lou for a long time I thought that it would be a good fit. Of course, it was a tough decision, but I just felt like watching the team playing I felt like I would fit in well there.”
On paper, the Islanders should be considered one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference. They return their “Identity Line” of fourth line bruisers in Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, and there no significant defections in free agency to a hockey club that was second in the NHL with 2.23 goals allowed last season.
The only real loss was Jordan Eberle to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, but we’re also talking about a top-6 winger that hasn’t topped 20 goals in a season since his first year with the Islanders in the 2017-18 season.
If there’s any weak spot at all it’s offensively where the Islanders were just 21st in the NHL with 2.71 goals per game, but they employed more than enough firepower when the Stanley Cup playoffs rolled around. The dazzling Mat Barzal finished with six goals and 14 points in 19 games and really upped his engagement in the postseason.
Guys like Anthony Beauvillier, JG Pageau and Josh Bailey showed up (13 points apiece) with Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri finishing as team leaders with seven goals apiece in the postseason.
The real capper to all this is that the Islanders will also be bringing back a fully healthy Anders Lee to the mix after the frontline center was lost last year due to season-ending ACL surgery. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Lee began skating again during the playoff series against the Boston Bruins last summer and is officially on target for a healthy return to Islanders training camp.
All the above should leave the Islanders loaded for bear when they christen their new home arena, UBS Arena, on Nov. 20 this season, and leaves a lot of optimism that something special is happening with the Isles this year.
“Everyone involved from top to bottom has put in a lot of effort to get to this point and to make [The New York Islanders] a place where people don't want to leave," said Lee. "I don't think there's a better place in the NHL to play, so we're all as players in agreement there and right off the top you're starting in a good place.”
Once upon a time the New York Islanders were the butt of NHL jokes while paying an injured Rick DiPietro millions of dollars or watching franchise center John Tavares leave the organization high and dry after bolting for the Maple Leafs. But nobody is cackling at the Islanders anymore with an NHL roster bursting with talent, tough-to-play-against types and a management group hellbent on winning it all again.
This could be the Islanders’ year, and nobody has said that with earnest, honest optimism in a long, long time.