Man plans and God laughs. Recently, I looked back on the first post on Drive4Five, one in which I tried to orchestrate the perfect offseason for the New York Islanders. It’s been over a year now, and things have changed, drastically. With the regular season now hours away, it’s worth looking back on one of the wilder offseasons in Islanders history.
The Islanders missed the playoffs for the second year in a row in 2017-2018. It was mostly due to defensive weakness which led to the team losing many games in the second half of the season. The offseason began quietly for the Isles, especially after owner Jon Ledecky hinted that Garth Snow and Doug Weight would not be fired. For a while, it seemed like that would be the case, but decisions from other teams would have an effect on the Islanders’ fate.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had a plan in place where Lou Lamiorello would turn over GM duties to assistant GM Kyle Dubas and Lou would transition into a higher role with the club. Unfortunately for the Leafs, Lou was not interested in such role and resigned. Within a few days, the Islanders hired him as President of Hockey Operations. Then, after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, he preyed head coach Barry Trotz away from the nation’s capital to coach the Isles, thus firing Garth Snow and Doug Weight. Lamiorello assumed GM duties in Snow’s place.
Meanwhile, hanging over the Islanders’ heads the entire offseason was John Tavares’ pending UFA status. For months he had expressed his desire to stay on Long Island and many of his teammates believed he would stay put. Then on draft day, Tavares announced that he would take the opportunity to meet with 6 teams. Fans weren’t alarmed. He stated he was taking advantage of the opportunity to meet with other teams as he knew that he may not get it again during the prime of his career.
Also on draft day, the Islanders took two of the best prospects available in the first round. Defenseman Noah Dobson and winger Oliver Wahlstrom became New York Islanders that night, despite many experts thinking they would go higher in the draft. The two players impressed in rookie camp with Wahlstrom scoring a spectacular goal in the rookie scrimmage and Dobson playing solid defensively in that game. Dobson was recently named the captain of his junior team and will be playing there for another season while Wahlstrom is committed to Boston University for the season.
In the week after the draft, Islanders fans were anxiously and religiously checking twitter and any available media outlet for any information on the status of their captain. He was in meetings with multiple teams throughout the week. Teams like San Jose emerged as threats to steal JT away from the team that drafted him. They had cap space and great players who could play with Tavares. Boston and Dallas were also possible landing spots but it seemed like Tavares would stay with the Isles.
The weekend came and Isles fans had little hope to cling onto. Many still believed that Tavares would stay, but ultimately, once midnight on June 30th came and passed, it was all but obvious that Tavares would not return. At 1 PM on July 1st, Pajama Boy, as he came to be known, made his decision. Unlike the outcome of the Stamkos saga of 2016, Tavares decided to play for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, taking a pay cut in the process. The decision devastated Isles fans, with many burning jerseys and taking to social media to express their anger.
Stan Fischler was one of the best to articulate the fan’s distaste after Tavares’ departure. In an interview, he asked Tavares if he could have handled the process better. Tavares kept his thoughts away from management towards the end of the process, after he told the team at the trade deadline he did not want to be traded. He indicated that he wanted to stay, but from his social media posts, it seemed like he knew all along where he wanted to play, despite his claim that it was “last minute.” The question and interview brought the former Islander to tears, indicating that he appreciated his time on Long Island but within the tears, he had trouble defending himself for the way he made his choice.
JT recently made a commercial for CCM in which he pulls out a Maple Leafs blanket from his hockey bag then shows the picture of him sleeping in that blanket years earlier. It’s obvious in this case that Tavares’ actions revealed more about his thought process than his words and gestures did.
As for the Islanders free agent acquisitions, they were, for the most part, underwhelming. Sticking to the Toronto-New York Islanders personnel exchange, the Islanders signed forward Leo Komarov to a four year contract, and an expensive one at that. Granted, he is one of the best penalty killers in the game, something the team needed after finishing in the bottom of the league in that department a season prior. He also brings veteran leadership to a young team.
Also coming to New York were forwards Valterri Filpulla and Tom Kuhnhackl, rounding out an already strong core of forwards. The amount of forwards acquired surprised many fans considering they also lost defenseman Calvin de Haan to free agency (Carolina), and defense was already an area of weakness for the team.
Then, only days after losing Tavares, the Islanders called up the Maple Leafs, who after signing the star center were low on cap space, and re-acquired fan favorite forward Matt Martin in exchange for goalie Eamon McAdam. The move excited Isles fans, as they know how much Martin loves playing on Long Island and the physicality he brings to each game he plays.
The Isles added yet another forward in free agency, looking to Europe to acquire Jan Kovar. The Slovakian center was one of the best players in the KHL last season and he was expected to play in a middle six role with the club. Instead, he was sent down to Bridgeport, but may be called up in the case of an injury.
Also coming to Long Island early in the free agent period was goalie Robin Lehner. The Swedish netminder was released by the Sabres after dealing with mental health issues towards the end of the year and during the summer, a process he described in detail before preseason. Signed to a one-year deal in the wake of the departure of Jaroslav Halak, Lehner has a lot to prove and has an opportunity to rejuvenate his career with the Islanders.
In mid-September, training camp opened with the players having shaved their facial hair and many changing jersey numbers, both policies of the new management. They opened the preseason with a 3-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers and won another four games before the roster was trimmed down for opening night in Carolina.
On paper, the Islanders are undoubtedly worse than they were last year. That’s scary, considering how low they finished in the standings. But changes were made behind the scenes and in the DNA of the club. Expectations are low, and the Islanders have a chance to achieve greatness in what should be an exciting season.