The New York Islanders cleaned out their lockers at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday, obviously still disappointed about dropping their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
However, the 2012-13 season has to be dubbed a successful one for the Islanders. After all, they did participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years. The Penguins, who are the No. 1 seed in the East, needed overtime to beat the Islanders twice.
So now that the Islanders are indeed back in business, the next logical step is to build off what they were able to accomplish on the ice this season. With Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares at the forefront, and more young players (Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart, for instance) on the way, the Islanders look like they have the talent to contend for years to come.
"Our expectations are to win every year," coach Jack Capuano told reporters Tuesday. "That doesn't change. You have to understand the expectations of how tough it's going to be. There's other teams in the Eastern Conference that didn't make the playoffs. Sometimes there's coaching changes, sometimes there's personnel changes. They're going to make their clubs better. We have to understand that when we get out of the gate in Game 1 [next season] that the feeling that they had down the stretch and the belief in the system that they had has to start immediately."
Before the 2013-14 season gets under way in October, general manager Garth Snow will be faced with some difficult decisions. Two of his leaders – goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and defenseman Mark Streit – are set to become unrestricted free agents in July. Streit has been captain the past two seasons, and Nabokov's play down the stretch helped end New York's playoff drought.
However, Nabokov struggled during the postseason. He allowed at least four goals in each of the four losses and was pulled twice. His goals-against average was 4.44 and his save percentage was .842.
Capuano deflected any questions about personnel changes to Snow, but was quick to defend his No. 1 goalie.
"We were 67 percent in the playoffs on the penalty kill," Capuano said. "I know your goalie's your best penalty-killer, but go back to Game 3 … I don't think Nabby had a chance on a few of those goals. We had our breakdowns, there's no question. But throughout a series, you're going to have breakdowns. It's how you respond and how you adjust.
"He got us there. He played a lot of hockey and I thought he did a real good job for us. My mindset doesn't change on Nabokov."
As for Streit, the five-year, $20 million deal he signed with the Islanders in the summer of 2008 is set to expire. He's sure to receive offers from other teams if he reaches free agency July 5, but Streit told reporters Tuesday he hopes to extend his stay on Long Island.
Streit finished tied with Tavares for the team lead with five points (two goals, three assists) in the six-game loss to Pittsburgh.
"I've been here five years and played with a lot of great players," Streit said. "It's a great organization. I love the team and living on Long Island. I think this year, making the playoffs and the fans and playing in front of those crowds were unbelievable. I really want to come back. I love the guys on the team. We have a great room, and I think that's always important and special.
"It was a shorter season, but a great experience and a lot of fun. Making it to the playoffs was one of our goals and we reached that. Unfortunately, we came up short against Pittsburgh, but we gave them a hard battle. But this situation is definitely different than the years before."
The Islanders were obviously the underdog entering their first-round series against the Penguins, and their chances of an upset became slimmer when defenseman Andrew MacDonald suffered a broken hand while blocking a shot in Game 4. MacDonald has since undergone surgery and should be ready to go when training camp opens in September.
"Our expectations are to win every year. That doesn't change. You have to understand the expectations of how tough it's going to be. There's other teams in the Eastern Conference that didn't make the playoffs. Sometimes there's coaching changes, sometimes there's personnel changes. They're going to make their clubs better. We have to understand that when we get out of the gate in Game 1 [next season] that the feeling that they had down the stretch and the belief in the system that they had has to start immediately." -- Islanders coach Jack Capuano
MacDonald, 26, averaged 23:26 of ice time per game during the playoffs and finished third in the League during the regular season with 123 blocked shots.
"It was really frustrating," MacDonald said. "The same thing happened two years ago and I broke my other hand. It was early in the season so it wasn't nearly as bad as this one. It's pretty tough to watch those games. We obviously didn't play very well in Game 5, but Game 6 I thought everyone really stepped up and played great. I think everyone should be proud of how we played. We're not satisfied with it, but it's a good stepping stone going forward."
Indeed, it was a solid mix of players in the Islanders dressing room this season, led by Streit and Nabokov, while Tavares, MacDonald, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Travis Hamonic continued to grow into leadership roles. There obviously could be some personnel changes this summer as Snow tries to improve his club, but the core is already in place -- a core that wishes the 2013-14 season started tomorrow and is eager to prove that what the Islanders accomplished this season was only the beginning.
"I think this is probably one of the most close-knit group of guys that I've coached," Capuano said. "We won those games and we battled as hard as we did because they cared for one another and they played for the guy across from them, they played for the next to them. That was the disappointing thing for me, that when you do your exit physicals and it's all said and done that they don't get to play together again. That's what it's all about – it's all about the players.
"I thought we grew as a team in a lot of different areas. It wasn't the outcome that we wanted. We have to be better, but they have to understand – and I think they do understand – how tougher it's going to be moving forward."