“Well Islanders fans, you’ve waited a long time to hear it…Captain Anders Lee…Come get The Stanley Cup!”
If you are a fan of the NY Islanders, the above is what you are imagining NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman saying at the end of the season — roughly sometime in the beginning of July — when he (knock on wood) presents the Stanley Cup to the Islanders after they reach the pinnacle of the hockey world.
It has been 38-years since the Isles last sipped — or chugged — champagne from Lord Stanley’s fabled chalice and for the first time since their “Drive for Five” fizzled against the Oilers in 1984, it feels like the Boys from Long Island are legitimate contenders to go all the way once more.
Think about it. How fitting would it be, that in the franchise’s second farewell to the beloved Nassau Coliseum, it went out with a Champion?
While there are many things to factor into a team’s championship aspirations — luck, health, chemistry, etc. — one thing that is absolutely present for the 2020-21 Islanders is familiarity. This team, its core, its leadership, its supporting characters, has been together for several seasons now and that one factor above almost any other will be huge in determining the Nassaumen’s fate in 2021.
Anders Lee has not missed a game the past three seasons (for the last two he’s been captain). And beyond the stats — he has 156 points (88g, 68a) in his last 232 games played — Lee has been a rock on the ice and in the dressing room.
“Obviously, I’m not in the room,” said Newsday Islanders beat writer, Andrew Gross, “or around the team in their private time, but you can just tell with how Anders acts around the media, the respect he has in the room. Anders kind of paves the way with his off-ice endeavors and how that translates to his on-ice leadership, that he is not afraid to speak his mind.”
Perhaps the best way to describe this team is this quote from Head Coach Barry Trotz (and was reported by The NY Post’s Mollie Walker): “I think we have a very close team. We just do. And to me, that’s a gift, that’ll separate us from a lot of teams…It gives us an opportunity to say, ‘hey, this worked for us.'”
It is that closeness, which has been bred from familiarity and continuity, that has especially shined through in camp; in the form of anger at not getting the job done last season and at having a singular, focused mission of going all the way this year.
And that sentiment was expressed in various players’ zoom interviews at the start of camp. But the most colorful statement belonged, unsurprisingly, to Trotz, who said, “I have not gotten over the loss to the Lightning. On my deathbed, that will be one of the visions that will go through my head…We didn’t win the Cup last year, so we’re not happy.” (Once again, quotes courtesy of The NY Post’s Mollie Walker).
In order to achieve their goal of winning The Stanley Cup, the Isles are going to need to build upon each of their two previous playoff runs, which saw them collectively defeat the Penguins, Panthers, Capitals and Flyers before coming up short against the Hurricanes and Lightning respectively.
And with Mathew Barzal now under contract after a semi-lengthy bout of restricted free agency, the Boys from Long Island have all the pieces in place to do just that.
Even with Barzal missing the first few days of camp while his new deal was negotiated and agreed to by all involved parties, it doesn’t look like he’ll have much, if any, trouble getting up to speed.
Per Anders Lee, who spoke to reporters after Barzal’s first practice: “(Barzal) makes things happen when he has the puck. Seemed to be a lot more chatter going on from the boys. He brings that every day. It’s just great to have him back, he always brings something exciting, whether it’s the plays he’s making or the things he’s saying.”
But Lee and Barzal aren’t the only ones who will be responsible for getting the Islanders across the finish line.
Young forwards Oliver Wahlstrom and Kieffer Bellows will likely be counted on to bring some skill to the third-line, where they’ve consistently been teamed up with J.G. Pageau throughout camp. Pageau too will be a big piece of the puzzle after the Isles gave up a haul to acquire him at least season’s trade deadline and then signed him long-term to boot. And Pageau made good on that deal in the playoffs over the summer as he accumulated 11 points (8g, 3a) in 22 games during New York’s run to the Eastern Conference Final.
“Pager is one of the smartest players in the league, one of the most complete players in the league, so we put the two kids with him,” Trotz told reporters over the weekend. (Quote reported by Arthur Staple of The Athletic).
Another key to the Isles success will be filling the hole on defense left by Johnny Boychuk’s injury-forced farewell.
Among those who will have the first crack at filling Boychuk’s skates is a rather young, some would say neophyte, defenseman by the name of Noah Dobson. Dobson, who just turned 21-years-old a few days ago, played 34 games for the Isles last season and has greatly impressed the coaching staff and his teammates during camp. It’s not out of the realm of possibility Dobson has a “break-out” year with the consistent minutes he’s sure to have.
And speaking of breakouts, would anybody be surprised if young goalie stud, Ilya Sorokin snatches away the starting netminder job from the incumbent starter, Semyon Varlamov, before the playoffs begin?
Trotz may be going with Varlamov to start the season, but that doesn’t mean it’s his job forever.
“For me,” Trotz said to reporters, “Varly is our goaltender to start. He’s earned that right through his play. Both of them had good camps. Varly’s earned that right to start and we’ll go from there.” (Quote courtesy of Arthur Staple and The Athletic).
Of course, Sorokin’s lightning quick reflexes have been on display throughout camp and those in attendance are beginning to run out of superlatives to describe his play.
Defenseman Scott Mayfield told reporters, “(Sorokin) He’s just fast, he can move post to post real fast… Sometimes it seems like he’s out of it but then he’d reach back and catch one. Just the way he can move…” (Once again, quotes courtesy of Mollie Walker and The NY Post).
In this battle for the crease I say the young gun knocks out the veteran in the 8th-round.
And if knockouts excite you, then try this on for size. The Isles’ fourth-line, often referred to as “The Best Fourth Line in Hockey,” remains intact after Matt Martin’s reported new deal, which is four-years in length. Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck bring the energy and the thunderous hits whenever they’re on the ice and even without fans in the stands, they’ll be sure to find a way to get their teammates going.
All told, the Stanley Cup window is open for the Islanders, they just have to angle it right to catch the pleasant breeze. And maybe the summer air will even carry along the sweet sound of Queen’s “We Are The Champions.”