One year ago, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the New York Islanders as they reported for training camp.
There was new management, an overhauled coaching staff and a host of new faces joining the team. Training camp was going to be an education, with new systems, structure and terminology to learn and a new defensive identity to forge.
This year, the second under Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz, uncertainty has become familiarity - and that's a good thing in the eyes of the returning Isles, who are looking to build off the foundation they set last season.
"You go into every year with a clean slate and you try to build from there, but we have some good foundational things that we put in place with everybody back," Trotz said. "You talk about cultural foundations. Everybody knows what structure we play with, everybody knows the accountability we look for. We play together, there's a method to how we play and why we play."
That's not to say Friday's first session will be an easy skate - Trotz had his players doing on-ice push-ups on day one last year - or that there won't be new things for the Islanders to learn, just that the learning curve will be lessened this year.
"We're starting from a higher place," Adam Pelech said. "It'll be easier to get into the groove of things."
The Islanders enter training camp on the heels of a 103-point season, a second-round playoff appearance and as the NHL's king of the hill in goals against. They're looking to build off 2018-19, and are looking to do so with nearly a carbon copy of last year's squad. Sub in Semyon Varlamov and Derick Brassard for Robin Lehner and Valtteri Filppula and it's largely unaltered after that, with Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson all forgoing free agency and opting to return. Jim Hiller replaced Scott Gomez on the coaching staff, the one change from last year behind the bench.
Both Lamoriello and the players see that as a positive. While the rest of the Metro shuffled the deck, the Islanders are hoping that continuity leads to more growth.
"I'm not a believer in change for the sake of changing," Lamoriello said. "You have to make sure that what you change will make you better… We looked at our team and we felt that the players we wanted to bring back we were able to do that."
"Some teams have made lots of moves, does that make them better?," Trotz said. "On paper it does, but we don't play the game on paper. If that was the case, then last year we would have been a lottery pick team where everybody thought we were going to be. You see the strength of playing a group, playing together with structure, accountability and all those things that we do that you can have success in this league."
Recreating the roster is one thing, but recreating the same mentality and intensity is another. Pegged to finish at the bottom of the standings in 2018-19, the Islanders played with a chip on their shoulder and with some early prognostications calling for a drop-off, the rallying cry could sound familiar.
"We have some expectations now, but at the same time, I don't think anyone in the hockey world sees us making the playoffs two years in a row," Anthony Beauvillier said. "It's still the same mentality as last year. We have to prove people wrong."
Trotz doesn't want his team to lose that edge either, or see complacency set in. There's healthy competition on the blue line with seven returning defensemen - Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey, Nick Leddy, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews - plus 2018 first-round pick Noah Dobson and Luca Sbisa (PTO) knocking on the door. Up front, Trotz said there are "no entitlements" heading into camp, so everything must be earned, which is fine by the Islanders, who are embracing another tough Trotz training camp and a chance to grow together.
"We're going to have to work just as hard as we did last year just to get to that point, so we're going to have to find a way to get over the top," Cal Clutterbuck said. "Confidently, we have a group that is very capable of doing it. We have a group that has a year put into it now. Hopefully we can find the same level of cooperation and intensity and take this thing a little further."