Before last season, I wrote that my personal goal for the Islanders 2015-16 season was that I wanted to believe. I wanted a team that I was confident in night-in, night-out, that I felt was on the right track and that finally, permanently, squashed those damn fears and anxieties that I’ve been carrying around over the last few decades.
The Islanders had a 100-point season and made the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 23 years. And here I am several months later, still wanting to believe.
Once again, the Islanders are a good team. Once again, I’m worried good won’t be good enough. Once again, the margin of error seems very thin and a single loss here or there or one injury or one decision seems like it could cost them the season.
It’s more than just losing three players - Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin - that were all likable longtime Islanders and productive professionals (yes, even Martin). Their replacements - Andrew Ladd, Jason Chimera (but you can forget P.A. Parenteau, who now resides in New Jersey) - are also good players in their own ways, as are the two rookies - Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier - that made the final 23-man roster.
But they’re new. As of now, we don’t know how or even if they’ll mesh with the existing roster. There’s good statistical and historic evidence that they might not. Even today, a day before the season starts, the team is still tinkering with lines that will be tinkered with all season long until they find... I don’t know. Whatever it is they think they want to see. We won’t know for sure what they have until the new model rolls off the assembly line... and right into the middle of a racetrack with 29 other cars.
It reminds of a recent season in which I felt exactly the opposite way. On opening night of the 2014-15 season, the Islanders had five new starters in Jaroslav Halak, Nikolay Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, all acquired for a handful of draft picks, a prospect and a lot of dough. By making huge additions without removing anyone, that team was objectively, significantly, ridiculously better than they had been the season before.
There was a palpable level of excitement that season that carried through the All Star Break until about Okposo’s eye injury in January. Even though they lost in the first round of the playoffs, the feeling was that better things were ahead.
And they were! Just...not quite how we expected they would be.
Last season, the Islanders were a chic pick to make a lot of noise, and in the case of one national magazine (and, er, an EA Sports NHL 16 simulation), even reach the Stanley Cup Final. Going into this season, there’s little outside confidence that the changes made will propel the team further than last year’s wild card spot and medium-length playoff run. And that’s even with discounting longtime ESPN ghoul Scott Burnside, who we have established wouldn’t piss on the Islanders if the team bus was on fire.
The Islanders have always been a team that did things in weird ways (except for that whole build an expansion team through the draft and into a dynasty thing). I should be used to this by now. But there seems to be a lot of risk involved in this season’s team, and it feels like it will sink or swim based on a lot of hunches.
Maybe the kids end up bringing a ton of energy and creativity to the offense. Maybe Ryan Pulock is returned to the line-up soon and unleashes his slapshot for a full season (seriously, though. Bring him back). Maybe Ladd ends ups being the trigger man John Tavares has needed for a long time. Maybe Chimera’s 37-year old legs keep turning the clock back. Maybe Thomas Greiss continues his excellent play from last season and the team ends this three goalie nonsense by picking the right two guys.
It’s not a great way for a naturally nervous fan to start the season. But it’s all I’ve got right now.