UNIONDALE, N.Y. - The New York Islanders' season started well before this weekend's home-and-home series against the Eastern Conference champion Buffalo Sabres.
You have to look further north than upstate New York to find where this version of the team came together. The rebuilt Islanders, who spent the latter part of the summer replacing the loss of four of their top six scorers, headed to the Maritimes for a much-needed pre-season getaway that had as much to do with bonding as it did with hockey.
Goodbye Alexei Yashin, Jason Blake, Ryan Smyth, Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti. They were all Islanders in the spring for the team's five-game, first-round exit against the Sabres in the playoffs and were all gone in July when the free-agent shopping spree started.
It looked as though the Islanders were left without a plan or a roster that could be competitive even in the parity-filled landscape created by the salary cap. The big names were gone from their team, and the others on the open market chose to play elsewhere.
Enter Bill Guerin and Mike Comrie, a pair of former 30-goal scorers left without homes when the free-agent frenzy slowed. They spoke to each other and decided to come to Long Island as a package deal.
With Ruslan Fedotenko also on board along with hard-hitting Andy Sutton, and forward Jon Sim, the Islanders believe they have the right mix to challenge for their fifth playoff appearance in six seasons.
But the task is great.
"We all know we have a job to do," Comrie said. "We're excited about the challenge. A lot of people thought since we've lost some players that we won't be competitive, but it's up to us to work hard and play the way we can."
The Islanders lost 111 goals and 164 assists from last season, yet the culture in the dressing room has changed completely. Many already feel that is an important an alteration as there is.
"It just seems like it is a little more alive," said Miroslav Satan, third on the team last season with 27 goals and 59 points. "We're excited and waiting for the season to start to prove that we can be a really good team this year."
Guerin scored 36 goals last season while splitting time between St. Louis and San Jose. When he was officially introduced to Long Island days after signing his $9-million, two-year deal, the Islanders surprised him by putting the captain's 'C' on his sweater.
He inherited the title from Yashin, who never seemed comfortable in the role anyway. Comrie is signed for one season, but hopes to prove in that time he can be a first-line centre alongside Guerin and Fedotenko.
"We have some real good character type of guys that are going to compete on a daily basis and lift the level of everybody else," second-year coach Ted Nolan said. "I'm really excited about this group of guys. We have a really good team."
A 10-day trip to Moncton, New Brunswick brought the group together for training camp. There were extra practices, and sessions focused on the power play. But hanging out off the ice might prove to be every bit as important.
"I'm a real big believer that if you don't know someone, it's hard to play for them and hard to play with them," Nolan said.
Yashin was the face of the franchise the past five seasons, for better or worse, as the Islanders waited for the offensive outbursts they thought he would produce when he signed a 10-year, $87.5 million deal after arriving from Ottawa in 2001.
Often a disappointment, Yashin's time ended following benchings in the playoffs. His contract was bought out and the enigmatic forward signed a deal to return to his native Russia.
That was the least painful of the departures.
All last season, the slogan that filled Nassau Coliseum was, "We're All Islanders." Then Smyth and Blake took off as quickly as they could.
Just hours into free agency on July 1, Smyth spurned the Islanders - who made a blockbuster trade deadline day deal to pry him from Edmonton - and Blake took his 40 goals to Toronto.
"You can say we lost goal scoring, but we replenished it with some pretty talented players who have the ability to put big numbers up," general manager Garth Snow said. "We love the character of our team, the potential for players to produce offensively and I think we're better defensively.
"We think we've upgraded and we're happy with the personnel."
Especially goalie Rick DiPietro, who is entering the second season of his landmark 15-year deal. He won a career-best 32 games last season but was sidelined twice late in the campaign by concussions. During the off-season, he underwent hip surgery.
Keeping him healthy will be key for the Islanders, who had to scramble in the final week last season to grab the final playoff spot from the East after the Canadiens and Maple Leafs faltered at the end.
"You can't look at the big picture," Comrie said. "Once you get into the playoffs, that's another season. Our goal right now is to be competitive every game and we know that the games in October are just as important as the games in February."