It's no secret the New York Islanders' hopes of winning the Stanley Cup begin and end with the health and production of their captain, John Tavares.
But three important members of Tavares' supporting cast signed elsewhere as unrestricted free agents on July 1. Frans Nielsen, arguably one of the better two-way centers in the NHL, signed a six-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings. Right wing Kyle Okposo, a first-round pick (No. 7) in 2006 and three-time 20-goal scorer, left for a seven-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres. Left wing Matt Martin, annually among the NHL's leading hitters and a key component of New York's dynamic fourth line, signed a four-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The timing of the departures wasn't great; the Islanders, for the first time since 1993, won a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season when they defeated the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference First Round in six games. New York's season ended with a five-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round, but it was a solid start in their new home after the Islanders moved to Barclays Center in Brooklyn following 43 years at Nassau Coliseum.
So how do they build on that success when three key pieces have headed elsewhere?
"Frans Nielsen and I have been together for a long time," coach Jack Capuano said. "Kyle and I have been together for a long time, and Matt came in a little bit after that. It's part of the business, though. I had real good conversations with all three guys once July 1 was over. It's one of those things where they care about the things that you've done for them, and I wish those guys nothing but the best."
General manager Garth Snow did his best to keep New York headed in the right direction. The Islanders signed left wing Andrew Ladd, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, to a seven-year contract reportedly worth $38.5 million (average annual value $5.5 million). Left wing Jason Chimera, who is 37 but skates like he's 25, signed a two-year, $4.5 million contract (AAV $2.25 million) after scoring 20 goals for the Washington Capitals last season. Right wing PA Parenteau, who had 120 points over two seasons from 2010-12 playing with Tavares, returns to New York on a one-year contract reportedly worth $1.25 million.
"We've had back-to-back 100-point seasons for the first time in 30-plus years," Capuano said. "I think that we have some veteran guys on our hockey club now that have the experience; they know what it takes to not only get there, but what it takes to win. No excuses, we ran into some key injuries down the stretch, but at the end of the day, it was a real good experience for our guys and our fans.
"I think the guys that we signed like the way we played, the style of play that we played with. I think the one thing about Garth is that he always makes the final decision on what needs to be done on the personnel side of things. But he plays his cards, he's going to go around and ask a lot of people for a lot of different opinions on what people think of players before he does things. It's his final decision, but he does communicate very well."
Snow has the backing of his new co-majority owners, Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, who took control of the Islanders from Charles Wang on July 1, the same day Ladd, 30, agreed to spend what could be the rest of his career with the Islanders. The chance to play with Tavares obviously was enticing to Ladd, who scored 25 goals last season between the Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks, and brings 64 games of NHL playoff experience. A phone call from Malkin on June 30 also may have played a major role in Ladd's decision.
Ladd said Malkin's message was simple: We're here to win. We're serious. Whatever is required to deliver a championship, the resources will be there. Join us.
"He was extremely positive and extremely excited to be involved with the team," Ladd said, "and just what they could do and his interest level in making all that stuff happen. A lot of things go into winning a Stanley Cup, but they're definitely off to a great start.
"I think any team with John Tavares on it and the goaltending and the defense that the Islanders have, they're very close. I'm looking forward to the challenge of helping this team get to the next level, and that's a Stanley Cup."
The Islanders certainly will have a different look this season. The goal, however, remains the same.
"I think our guys will be eager and they'll be ready to go," Capuano said. "I don't think there's any complacency with our guys."