The NHL season starts this week and the previews and predictions are starting to roll out. Few outlets are high on the Islanders. Not all of them are as bad as you might think they are, but the loose consensus seems to be that the Islanders are a perfectly okay team that will just miss the playoffs and whose world could potentially implode into a super nova of darkness on or about next July 1st.
And, really, why should anybody think any differently? As usual, the Islanders seem to have more questions than they do players. There’s The Tavares question which is related to The Arena question which is related to Barclays Center which is related to low attendance which is related to team performance which is related to roster construction which is related to Jordan Eberle and a crew of rookies working out which is related to drafting and so on and so forth.
And then there’s the rest of the Metro Division, which squares up once again as the NHL’s version of Mortal Kombat. The Islanders always seem to operate as if they’re the only team in the NHL. They can get better in a vacuum - like adding Eberle in place of Ryan Strome - but when compared to other teams, it can be difficult to see them as anything but a bubble team. If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t have a lot of faith that they’ll be the last team standing in a playoff spot when the bubble bursts.
However! Not everything is terrible, right? I expect Eberle to have a quality season, especially now that he’s no longer saddled with the weight of at least seven Oilers beatwriters constantly shoving themselves up his ass. If you watched any of the preseason games (weaker competition accepted), you’d have seen that rookies Mathew Barzal and Josh Ho-Sang are capable of electrifying plays and actual fun, something this team has sorely lacked for a good two seasons now. And the “old man” in their age group, Anthony Beauvillier, nailed down a roster spot just as camp broke, which might mean he’s ready to take another step.
As camp and preseason progressed, there’s one person that I started thinking will have the most influence on how this Islanders season plays out.
Faith in Weight is All We Have
Imagine this: the Islanders starting a game with the line of Tavares-Eberle-Lee, Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk on defense and Thomas Greiss in net, one of just two goalies they have on the roster. Sounds mundane, right? For most teams, it is.
But for the Islanders, an ant farm that’s fallen off your dresser, broken open and is trying to colonize the dust under your bed, that simple decision represents a drastic change in philosophy. I thought about this as I saw that scenario with my own eyes at the preseason game against the Devils in Brooklyn.
It wasn’t the fourth line starting the game to “send a message.” It wasn’t former Devils Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier having a reunion with their old team. It was just... the guys who were supposed to be there being there.
This is the Doug Weight effect.
It’s other stuff, too. Camp was reduced by half after three preseason games to focus on the NHL roster. The Lines haven’t changed all that much, and the first line not at all, as players try to find chemistry. There’s already strong indications that veterans will sit in place of young guys if it means putting the better roster on the ice.
In his first training camp as head coach, Weight has seemed to prioritize communication, not secrets. The players clearly like him. If visiting media can tear themselves away from Tavares for a second, they’ll like him, too. He’s brought in a Delta Force of new coaches that were guys he played with, but who have brought fresh perspectives to a team that had gotten into a rut.
A lot of fans already like Weight because he’s not Jack Capuano. All he has to do to make everyone happy is keep the wins coming by coaxing more out of the same players that had petered out on Capuano’s message.
If you’re optimistic about the Islanders this season, chances are that straight-talking, no bullshit, new car smell Doug Weight is a big reason why.
[Update: Oops. Guess there’s still a ways to go. Remember, never read anything I write.]
How to Succeed in Business (Without A Stanley Cup)
What would be a successful season for the Islanders? There are the objective measures that go for everyone, like a Stanley Cup, Finals appearance or Conference Final appearance. Assuming none of those things happen, as they won’t for 27 of the league’s 31 teams and for which the Islanders are an extreme longshot, how many questions would need to be answered to make this campaign a satisfying one?
If Tavares and Eberle power the Islanders to the second round but Tavares leaves on July 1st, is this season a success? If they miss the playoffs but he re-signs and they win the bid for a new arena at Belmont Park, would you be happy?
Knowing Islanders fans the way I do, my guess would be that the answers to both questions would be, “Hell no.” Which is probably how it should be. Entering year three of their ownership, it’s about time Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin marry success on the ice with stability off of it.
The real answer to, “what would be a successful season for the Islanders?” is probably, “I’ll know when I see it,” rendering pretty much every preview on the internet totally meaningless.
I’m both intrigued to see how the season plays out while also being absolutely terrified because I might not like the answers to these many questions.