Islanders center Brock Nelson


Graziano: Rocky Summer Leaves Islanders With A Lot To Prove

Team Looks For Answers As Life After JT Begins

Andy Graziano
July 25, 2018 - 2:12 pm

It's a cruel, (cruel) cruel summer
Leaving me here on my own
It's a cruel, (it's a cruel) cruel summer
Now you're gone

That lyrics from the 1984 song "Cruel Summer" by Bananarama best sum up how the Islanders' offseason began. With former captain John Tavares deciding to use unrestricted free agency to fulfill a childhood dream of playing with his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, it left president and general manager Lou Lamoriello searching for answers on how to build his roster for the upcoming season. It’s an answer he seems to have not yet come up with.

The players can say what they want, and they have, to The Athletic’s Arthur Staple, about the naysayers' slaps across the face and whatnot, but the fact remains, it’s hard to see the Islanders of present being a better team than the one that underachieved last season. Does the addition of Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz make them better? Sure it does. The X's and O's that Trotz will instill will likely push them into the winner's bracket of some games they lost last year.

Do they draw inspiration from the incredible run by the Vegas Golden Knights last season? Absolutely they can, as the Knights showed grit and guts in willing their way to the Stanley Cup Final with a roster that fell short in talent from their opponents. But after an early summer of questionable signings by Lamoriello, the Islanders still seem to have more questions than answers on a roster that, on paper at least, doesn’t seem to stack up in the powerful Metropolitan Division.

Can Mathew Barzal continue to produce elite numbers as No. 1 center? Barzal is terrific, talented and confident for a 21-year old. His characteristics off the ice mesh nicely with his ridiculous talent on it, and if anyone can take the mantle from Tavares and run with it, it’s the "kid who won the Calder." Perhaps he takes a little hit initially from 85 points playing against the opposition’s best on a nightly basis, but over the long term, I’d say this is the least of the Islanders' worries.

MORE: Tavares Pens Emotional Letter On Leaving Islanders

Who plays second-line center? Anthony Beauvillier will likely man the third line, leaving newly signed Brock Nelson to, potentially for the last time, prove his worth to the Islanders. Inconsistency has plagued Nelson throughout his career so far, and Lamoriello giving him only a one-year "prove-it" deal means he is under serious evaluation. With the trade market being so weak, there weren’t many options in replacing a pivot like Tavares this summer. New York will have to make due with what they currently have.

Does the defense hold up? We seem to ask this question every season, and for the past two, the answer has been no. Ryan Pulock was terrific and signed a two-year deal earlier this month, Johnny Boychuk is coming off an injury-prone season and is a year older, Nick Leddy was an abomination in his own zone, and Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech still have a ton to prove. The most stable returnee happens to be Thomas Hickey, who signed a team-reasonable, four-year deal to stay aboard.

How good -- or how bad -- could goalie Robin Lehner be? With 219 games of NHL experience, he is no rookie. The past two seasons, he has started over 50 games for a lackluster Buffalo squad and posted save percentages of .920 and .908. For his career, he sits at .915, right around the NHL average. New York needs him to be much better than average. Unless Trotz comes in and cuts the shots against by 10 per game (unlikely) and cuts the high-danger chances against, Lehner is going to see a ton of rubber. Perhaps he surpasses all our expectations. Perhaps Thomas Greiss returns to form. Perhaps Linus Soderstrom comes in and plays lights out in training camp. Either way, that’s a lot of perhapses. 

Leo Komarov received a ridiculous four-year term and a modified no-trade clause to boot, but he should help the Islanders' abysmal penalty kill. Valtteri Filppula should also, but if he doesn’t, at least he only got a one-year commitment from Lamoriello. Tom Kuhnhackl is a role player at best, suited for fourth line, fill-in duty. And who knows who Jan Kovar is? Matt Martin was brought back for identity reasons and off-ice contributions as well as reuniting what was once the "the best fourth line in hockey" with pal Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck.

There just wasn’t a lot out there to play with for Lamoriello upon taking the job. Nobody saw Tavares leaving. But he did, and it left the Islanders a little shell-shocked. Lamoriello is a terrific boss and knows how to run a franchise the right way, from the top down. His skills as a general manager are a lot less proven, however, so who knows how long he remains in that position? It’s been eerily quiet on the Mark Hunter front.

The Islanders could stay true to the words of Boychuk and Josh Bailey and play with heart, fight, commitment, pride and grit, surpassing everyone’s predictions and expectations. That’s why they "play the games" after all. Playoffs are not earned on paper. Stanley Cups are not won on PlayStation 4 or Xbox. For right now, though, paper is all we have to go on.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN