Last season, the New York Islanders surprised many around the NHL, exceeding expectations under first-year coach Barry Trotz.
Brooklyn’s team (for now) won’t be sneaking up on anybody this time. During the 2019-20 season, their rivals will know what they’re up against: a stout defensive team that has clearly embraced Trotz’s system, one that has won the coach a Stanley Cup, in 2018, with the Washington Capitals.
The Islanders, who open their season Friday on Long Island against visiting Washington, largely return the same roster that finished the previous regular season wearing Cinderella’s slipper and then upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
Can they repeat or improve upon that performance? Here are three questions Trotz’s team will have to answer to do so.
Was the offseason too quiet?
A year removed from losing star captain John Tavares via free agency, to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, general manager Lou Lamoriello and his staff opted to largely stand pat this summer.
One change Lamoriello didn’t make was letting the new captain and the Isles’ best all-around forward Anders Lee walk via free agency this summer. Instead, Lee signed a seven-year, $49-million deal, meaning their young, dynamic collection of forwards including Josh Bailey, Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle and Anthony Beauvillier remains intact.
Can the D-men keep up?
The Isles may be young up front, but they are loaded with veterans on the blue line. Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy both have a lot of mileage on their tires — er, skates — and they will need to show they can still defend in a league dominated by speed and skill.
Who’s between the pipes?
While he kept Lee, Lamoriello opted to let Masterton Trophy-winning goaltender Robin Lehner leave for the Chicago Blackhawks via free agency. It was an odd decision after he goalie’s impressive season.
To replace him in goal, the Isles have added Semyon Varlamov and his baggage, and they still have the more than capable Thomas Greiss as well. Greiss and Lehner formed one of the league’s best goaltending tandems a season ago. Can Greiss and Varlamov do the same?
Key player: Semyon Varlamov
Robin Lehner came to the Islanders having battled bipolar disorder and substance abuse issues for much of his career.
All the Swedish netminder did last season was post a career-best 2.13 GAA and earn plaudits for his recovery both on and off the ice. So, his departure via free agency to Chicago this summer was a surprise.
Enter Semyon Varlamov, signed to a four-year, $20-million contract to replace him. Varlamov put up solid numbers over eight seasons as the No. 1 with the Colorado Avalanche, but he was also arrested twice during his time there and was dogged by inconsistent play.
If the Islanders can author another turnaround story, this time with the Russian as the protagonist, they’ll be fine. If, however, Varlamov makes more news off the ice than on it, they might suddenly find themselves missing Lehner.
“[Varlamov has] been working with our goaltending department and they’ve been giving him some things to work on to get his game to the level that he needs to [to start the season],” head coach oach Barry Trotz said recently. “Hopefully, as we go along here, he’ll settle in.”
They’ll need him to, because it’s hard to envision fellow goalie Thomas Greiss carrying the load by himself.