For the Islanders, the good times really are here again
By Ken Campbell
There are scenes you almost never see at an NHL arena, unless everything is going right.
With the New York Islanders one game away from advancing to the NHL’s final four for the second consecutive season, Nicole Raviv made it halfway through the second line of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the crowd of 12,000 in Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday took over. “There’s not many things that really give me the chills anymore, being in the league 12 years,” wing Matt Martin said, “but the national anthem really sends those chills down your spine.”
Four nights earlier, Hall of Fame forward Clark Gillies, a feared force of nature on the teams that won four straight Stanley Cups in the 1980s, had chugged a beer and then crushed the can against his head for all to see on the scoreboard screen. And on Wednesday, after the Islanders had defeated the favored Boston Bruins in Game 6 of the second round, Jon Ledecky, a co-owner of the team, made his way into a mob in the arena concourse and hugged fans as they chanted his name.
But like the crowd that broke into a spontaneous rendition of “Piano Man” in the parking lot, they are scenes as commonplace on Long Island these days as Billy Joel himself. It turns out that fans of the Islanders just needed a reason to cheer again.
For a second consecutive year, the Islanders have made it to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and for a second straight year, they face the enormous task of taking down the Tampa Bay Lightning to clear a path to the Cup Final. All of it — the on-ice success, the engagement of the fan base, the optimism that the organization is hoping to ride into the new UBS Arena at Belmont Park next season — seemed distant not that long ago.
The Islanders and their fans thought they had said goodbye to Nassau Coliseum for good in 2015, when the team moved 30 miles west to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a plan that fit the suburban organization like a tweed suit on a 90-degree day. And three years ago, the team lost its captain and franchise player, John Tavares, when he signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.
But the franchise’s follies date back even further.
They extend to 1996, when John Spano, an underfunded businessman turned felon, tried to buy the team and, thanks to a merely cursory background check by the NHL, almost pulled it off. Or to Mike Milbury, the general manager from 1995 to 2006, who earned the nickname Mad Mike for outrageous personnel moves like signing Alexei Yashin, a player for whom he had traded future Hall of Fame defenseman Zdeno Chara and whom he signed to a deal that resulted in the Islanders’ buying out the underperforming Yashin’s contract and effectively paying him $2.2 million a year for eight years not to play for them.
Not to be outdone, Milbury’s successor, Garth Snow, gave goaltender Rick DiPietro a 15-year, $67.5 million contract in 2006. Since 2013, DiPietro has received $1.5 million a year, and he will continue to do so until 2029.
The follies also encompass former owner Charles Wang, who fought valiantly to keep the Islanders from moving to Quebec City or Seattle or Kansas City, Missouri, and in 2012 struck an ill-conceived 25-year deal with Barclays Center to do it. The team returned last spring for the playoffs to await the new arena.
Now, though, the Islanders are on a steady rise. And much can be credited to other NHL organizations that made two of hockey’s sharpest minds available to them.
In the summer of 2018, the Maple Leafs pushed aside general manager Lou Lamoriello to make room for Kyle Dubas, a wunderkind who has assembled a startling level of individual talent that has yet to lead the team to a playoff-round victory. Lamoriello was approaching his 76th birthday at the time, and though he had been free to stay with the Leafs — “at my leisure,” as he put it — Islanders co-owner Scott Malkin pushed hard to bring him on board.
“Out of respect, I talked to Scott,” Lamoriello said. “I was impressed with his vision and his commitment.”
He added, referring to the owners of the New Jersey Devils during his time as general manager there: “The job description is what I had in New Jersey for years under John McMullen and George Steinbrenner. To be able to do things, you have to be able to make some hard decisions, and you have to make them without worrying about going through a lot of red tape. That was the key factor.”
Paramount among those decisions was the hiring in 2018 of Barry Trotz, who had just coached the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup before leaving in a contract dispute. After years of instability, poor management and subpar results, the Islanders suddenly had one of the best front-office tandems in the league.
Mathew Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in the 2017-18 season and was the only Islander to place among the top 100 scorers in the league this past season, has noticed the difference.
“The biggest thing is the detail and the professionalism, that day-in and day-out,” he said. “Whether that’s having short hair and clean facial hair throughout the regular season or details on the ice like changing hard, coming hard to the bench, practicing hard. Just being a pro, whether you’re going out for dinner on the road or coming to the airplane, you’ve got to be a pro 24/7, and they’ve really implemented that.”
This button-down approach has shown up on the ice. Lamoriello kept a good portion of the team’s core intact and made significant deals at the trade deadlines, getting Jean-Gabriel Pageau from the Ottawa Senators last season and picking up Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils in 2021. Lamoriello also signed goalie Semyon Varlamov as a free agent in 2019, and Varlamov was joined this season by Ilya Sorokin, a 2014 draft pick who starred in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League until he was 25 years old.
The season before Lamoriello arrived, the Islanders were the worst defensive team in the league. But in the 2018-19 season, they were the best, and this season, they finished second to the Vegas Golden Knights in goals against. Trotz and Lamoriello credit the players. The Islanders are not without offensive stars, but their strength is in coming at their opponents in waves and grinding down more talented teams.
“I’ve probably said this to every team I’ve had: If you want to go somewhere fast, go by yourself; if you want to go somewhere far, go with the group,” Trotz said after the Islanders had upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. “This group believes in the group, the strength of the group.”
The Islanders will need to summon all of that esprit de corps and more to beat the Lightning. Tampa Bay knocked them out of the Eastern Conference finals last season and went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Islanders had a strong start, winning Sunday’s series opener 2-1 in Tampa behind goals by Barzal and Ryan Pulock and 30 saves by Varlamov.
TODAY’S STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF GAMES
(All Times EST)
New York Islanders at Tampa Bay Lightning, 8 p.m., NBCSN (New York leads series 1-0)