Following Game 6 against Pittsburgh, Colin McDonald heard something in the post-series handshake line that has since resonated around the Islanders locker room.
“Sidney Crosby said to me, ‘You guys have a heck of a team.’ To have him recognize that – and even tell us that – it was pretty neat,” McDonald said.
Several of the Penguins players and coaches said similar things in the line. Though the obvious was staring the Islanders in the face – they had been eliminated from the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs – the comments from the team advancing to the next round added to the optimism that has taken over around Uniondale.
“Hopefully he told every guy in the line that same thing because it’s true,” McDonald said. “We have a great team here and I’m really looking forward to seeing how we perform next season.”
The Islanders out-hustled and out-battled other teams during the season on the way to a postseason berth. Playing meaningful NHL games in April and May in New York was new for almost every player in the room. The team sent a very clear message as they surged up the standings during the 2013 season: The New York Islanders are not going to roll over for anyone.
It’s a refreshing feeling, being back on other teams’ radar screens, as well as being in the national media spotlight. It means you’re doing something right; that you’re successful. But the flip side of that coin, as Kyle Okposo puts it, is that the Islanders won’t be sneaking up on anyone.
“We’re not going to surprise anybody next year,” Okposo said. “This season, I think teams might have taken us lightly, but that’s not going to happen again. Teams are going to bring their game when they come play us. We have to continue to get better as a team. You saw how we played over the last couple of months of the season and then in the playoffs, and what we were doing to be successful. We’re going to build off that going forward.”
The Islanders have most of their 2013 roster under contract for next season, with a core headlined by 22-year-old Hart Trophy Finalist John Tavares. Their top defensive pair consists of 26-year-old Andrew MacDonald and 22-year-old Travis Hamonic, who already have seven full seasons of NHL experience between them. Seven other players under the age of 26 appeared in at least 80-percent of the team’s games in 2013.
“We’ve got a lot of good, young players,” said 25-year-old defenseman Brian Strait. “We’ve got a lot of grit, a lot of character and that’s the stuff you can’t buy. It’s a really good family atmosphere in there. Guys weren’t happy how things ended, but looking forward to next year, we’re excited.”
Head Coach Jack Capuano said that while it’s inevitable that certain players will come up from juniors, the American Hockey League or other NHL teams to compete for roster spots next season, most of the players he expects back have already gone to battle for one another.
“I think this is probably one of the most close-knit groups of guys that I’ve coached,” Capuano said of the 2013 squad. “We won those games and we battled as hard as we did because they cared for one another. They played for the guy across from them. They played for the guy next to them. It’s all about the players. I give them credit for that.”
Even for an organization on its way up, and even if every returning player improves his game heading into next season, different challenges await. The first of which, as Michael Grabner pointed out, is the longer season. In 2013-14, the NHL returns to an 82-game slate.
“We have to build off what happened this year,” Grabner said. “We have 82 games and its going to be different than this year, so we can’t have any lapses like we’ve had in previous seasons. We have to come out strong for 82 games. We want to try and get a better seed. In the playoffs, it’s definitely better to get home-ice advantage, especially with fans like we have here behind us.”
The other change on the horizon is the NHL’s realignment. The Islanders will play in an eight-team division with familiar Atlantic Division carryovers in the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, but will also add to the mix the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets. Only four of those eight teams will punch a ticket to the postseason. The last time the Islanders played in a division in which only half its teams qualified for the playoffs was in 1997-98.
“When you get to the playoffs, everybody assumes, ‘Oh, the Islanders are going to be there next year automatically,’” said goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. “But the hardest thing is to stay there. It’s going to take more work right now. Every team is going to prepare during the offseason. Especially with teams from the Western Conference coming over, it’s going to be harder.”
So the bar has been raised. Success will be measured differently. And the players are excited for the new challenge.
“It’s good to have those expectations,” said forward Matt Moulson. “You want to live up to those and be better than the expectations put upon you. We’ll embrace that. We know it’s not going to be easy to make the playoffs, and it’s not easy to win in them. We know we have a lot of work to do.”
Tavares said the higher stakes that the Islanders played for this season, as well as the coming move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, should give the team an edge when it comes to attracting players from outside the organization to Long Island.
“We’re getting a new home in a couple of years here, and with the strides of this team, you can really see what we’re becoming,” Tavares said. “I think we’ve changed a lot of the perceptions that were out there. It’ll make guys think about coming here. We’ve got a great thing going. It’s a great time to be an Islander.”