Back on Jan. 17, the New York Islanders were 17-17-8, stuck in the basement of the Eastern Conference.
Enter Doug Weight, an Isles assistant since 2011, who took over that day after longtime head coach Jack Capuano was fired. He took over head-coaching duties on an interim basis and the team has not looked back. A 24-12-4 stretch closed the season and they fell just one point short of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Weight’s interim tag is gone, but questions about the state of the team persist. Here’s a look at three of the most pressing concerns entering Friday’s season-opening visit to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Will Tavares stay?
The Islanders greatest task this year may be off the ice. With free agency looming at the end of the season, the heat is on to sign center John Tavares to a new contract.
Tavares has carried the franchise on his shoulders since Day 1 after the Isles took him first overall in the 2009 draft. His 537 points (235 goals, 302 assists) rank ninth in the league since his debut.
The team captain has fielded questions about his future for months, so it’s hard to believe that the question barrage will affect Tavares’ play. He’s still capable of being a 30-goal scorer and one of the most consistent offensive threats in the league.
Regardless, one of Weight’s tasks will be keeping his team laser focused and blocking out constant queries to Tavares and teammates about the star’s future.
Are the kids ready?
If Tavares leaves in free agency at season’s end, Islanders brass are hoping they found the heir to his throne. Center Mathew Barzal, a 2015 first-round pick, will head the second line. After playing just two games last year, the 20-year-old rookie will be counted upon heavily this season.
Joshua Ho-Sang provided a bigger sample size in the spring, posting 10 points (four goals, six assists) in the 21 games. Along with Barzal, the 21-year-old forward could be a legitimate contender for the Calder Trophy in his first full season playing at Barclays Center.
Defensively, Adam Pelech re-upped with the Isles on a four-year deal in the offseason with just 53 career games behind him. The 23-year-old blueliner will pick up second-line duties after veteran Travis Harmonic was shipped to the Calgary Flames for draft picks.
Can two goalies co-exist?
It’s pretty difficult to win in the NHL without a starting-caliber goaltender. Luckily for the Islanders, they have two. Former All-Star Jaroslav Halak and veteran Thomas Greiss both have proved themselves to be reliable between the pipes.
But, last year’s three-goalie system proved to be a heavy burden. Halak, the original starter, argued that carrying three goalies — the third being J.F. Berube — didn’t allow effective practice time and his play suffered, bottoming out with a demotion to the AHL.
Greiss took over and was a catalyst for the team’s strong finish, posting three shutouts along the way. He was eventually overworked, leaving the door open for a Halak call-up and a six-game winning streak that followed.
Competition often makes for a better player and splitting time will guarantee they are always fresh. Yet, Halak might falter again at the thought of sharing the limelight.