Just days removed from the Islanders elimination of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the players met with reporters once last time before breaking for summer at locker clean out day. While the sour taste of a second-round sweep by the Carolina Hurricanes was still fresh, Monday's locker room was neither defeated nor somber. Instead, the clean-shaven players maintained an optimistic and hopeful outlook in regard to their season in review.
"Everyone pegged us to be a pick in the lottery," Mathew Barzal, who led the Isles with 62 points in his sophomore season, said. "For us to have the season that we did is a testament to everyone in this room and to how hard everybody worked. We really played with a chip on our shoulder all season. That mindset of being relentless and wanting to win hockey games will go a long way throughout the course of a season. It definitely did in this room. The culture is definitely about winning now."
Video: Locker Clean Out 2019: Mathew Barzal
After undergoing substantial changes to the front office, coaching staff and roster, the Isles entered the 2018-19 season with a number of question marks. The Islanders used that outside doubt as motivation and tackled the season with resilience, composure and most importantly, embraced a new defensive identity under Barry Trotz. The result? An impressive 103-point season, a dominant defensive turnaround and a foundation for future success.
"I'm extremely proud for a variety of reasons," President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello said. "I think the receptiveness they had to change. You can either challenge change or you can embrace it and they embraced it...When you get 103 points in this league today, you win the same amount of games on the road as you did at home, have a goal differential of 32 and give up the least amount of goals in the National Hockey League, take some credit for that. They deserve that...This group really cared for each other. That's what makes it satisfying. That what makes you feel good."
Video: Locker Clean Out 2019: Lou Lamoriello
No matter how harsh the pre-season criticisms were, the Isles proved a lot of people wrong this season. Their 103 points were the most since 1983. They allowed the fewest goals in the league (196) one year after allowing the most. They finished second in the Metropolitan Division, and finished fifth-overall in the league for the first time since 1985-86. They recorded as many wins at home as on the road (24 wins) and a swept their first-round series over the Pittsburgh Penguins, their first sweep since 1983.
Trotz was nominated for the Jack Adams Award, Robin Lehner is up for the Vezina and Bill Masterton and has already split the William Jennings with Thomas Greiss.
"A lot of the stuff we set out to do, we did," Trotz said. "A lot of good building blocks. You have to start somewhere. We started with becoming a competitive team from the get-go that had a good foundation in terms of work ethic, structure and accountability This group was a special group. They dug in all year. There weren't a lot of things expected of this group and they proved a lot of people wrong."
Video: Locker Clean Out 2019: Cal Clutterbuck
Proving people wrong was a starting point, not the end goal for the Islanders this season, who are taking the lessons from this season and using it to set the expectations for next year.
"It's not good enough just to win every once in a while, or just to make the playoffs every couple of years," Barzal said. "We want to be consistent in that. We really put the Islanders back on the map as a contending team."
Trotz sent his players home with offseason plans, as well as a message that expectations have indeed changed, both internally, and throughout the league. There will be no sneaking up on teams next year.
So while the season is officially over and ended earlier than Trotz and co would have liked, there was a lot to be proud of in 2018-19 and there's a lot to be optimistic about in store for the Isles.
"Expectations grow when you have a successful season," captain Anders Lee said. "You expect more from yourself and the group every year. Those are only going to continue to get higher. That's the bar we want to continue to set and to have. As a team every year, you always want to continue to improve on that."