“I don’t know why we keep talking about last year at this point. I think we’re all here now and looking forward.”
Josh Bailey speaks for all the New York Islanders as the nightmarish 2021-22 season is in the rearview mirror, and all eyes are on the road ahead.
Anytime first-year head coach Lane Lambert has been asked about the perils of last season, the answer was always about focusing on this year.
And that’s the right mindset for a team that underachieved after back-to-back trips to the semi-finals.
Yes, COVID-19 and the NHL’s handling of it severely affected the Islanders last season, but it was not an excuse for finishing 16 points out of the second wild-card spot.
The lack of adjustments to the lineup early, the unwillingness to allow young players to learn from their mistakes, and the inability to deviate from a defensive system that did not have the right pieces to be effective sank the Islanders to the bottom of the Metropolitan Ocean.
Many would say that last season was supposed to be a measuring stick season for the organization.
A prove-it year if you will, that the back-to-back success was not just a product of shortened seasons, and that the defensive system under head coach Barry Trotz could withstand the ebbs and flows of an 82-game slate.
In their first 82-game season, in what felt like years, The Islanders scored just 2.73 goals per game (22nd in NHL) with a goal differential of -2. Their leading scorers were Brock Nelson and Mathew Barzal (59), two players that missed time with injuries.
Not that a new arena adds to the prove-it year, but the New York Islanders debuted UBS Arena at Belmont Park, and the fan base spent many nights going home from the arena frustrated, especially early in the season.
The lack of results ultimately led to the firing of future Hall of Fame head coach Barry Trotz, with associate coach Lane Lambert earning the job.
It led to New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello trading the 12th overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft for a young defenseman in Alexander Romanov to add a young piece to the backend to help create that shutdown defense corpse.
A few months later, Lamoriello signed a speedy, defensive-minded European free agent in 28-year-old Nikita Soshnikov, who played himself onto the NHL roster.
The soon-to-be 80-year-old general manager showed trust in the organization’s youth for lack of offseason moves–not even signing a player to a PTO for that reason.
When training camp opened up, Lambert, who had studied under Trotz since their days with the Nashville Predators, showcased a more aggressive system as he focused on creating more offense.
Did the systematic changes, which play into the skill set of franchise player Mathew Barzal, help in his decision to sign an eight-year extension before the start of this season?
With little to no personnel changes, a first-year head coach, and slight tweaks to still a defensive-minded system, this year is for sure a prove-it year for this organization.
The players have to prove that Lamoriello made the right decisions in keeping this group together.
This season will prove if a defensive-minded system in today’s NHL is still a recipe for success.
And if the system does not hold up, the Islanders’ lack of speed and skill forces the hand of Lamoriello going forward to make changes–one would think.
As always, it will be a game-by-game mentality, a shift-by-shift mindset as the Islanders do what they can to showcase that last season was indeed a fluke and that their success over those two years prior was not.
Reclamation begins this Thursday night at 7:30 PM on UBS Arena ice when the New York Islanders welcome the 2021-22 President Trophy winners, the Florida Panthers.