Thursday, November 15, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning-Islanders: Maybe they don’t miss John Tavares so much after all

TAMPA — Many had written off the Islanders for this season, but the team that rolled into Tampa on Thursday night is instead one to be reckoned with.

Yes, it's the Islanders team that gave up a league high in goals last season: 296.

Yes, it's the Islanders team that lost its best player and captain when John Tavares signed with the Maple Leafs in free agency last summer.

Yes, it's the Islanders team that last made a postseason appearance in 2015-16 and finished seventh in the Metropolitan Division last year.

But it's the Islanders team that leads the division with an 8-5-2 record after its 4-2 loss to the Lightning.

"When John left the team in the summer, I think there was an automatic, 'Well, the Islanders aren't going to be any good,' " Lightning coach Jon Cooper said before the game. "And it's clear they're not a one-man team."

The Islanders team that lost Tavares gained coach Barry Trotz. Yes, the same coach Barry Trotz that led  the Capitals past the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final and on to the Stanley Cup title last spring.

"He's been great," Islanders forward Brock Nelson said of Trotz. "I think his message is clear. It isn't drastic changes, but maybe a couple of small changes, the way he runs things. Different tendencies."

That message: Make life difficult for visiting teams.

"Let's be hard to play against and build a culture where you come back … and say, 'It's going to be a hard game,' " Trotz said. "That's what we want the other team to say. … When they start to say that, you already have a culture and an advantage over other teams."

Instilling this message helped Trotz accomplish his goal of helping his team find a better identity. After becoming coach June 21 following his resignation from Washington, Trotz wanted to do what he could to learn about the men he would coach. He found a team lacking a true identity.

"I think what was maybe lost a little bit was that the identity maybe was one person," Trotz said. "Maybe it was John Tavares. With so much focus on the fact that he was going to get into free agency, what's going to happen to the Islanders? For an outsider, now that I'm an insider, what got lost in translation is that the Islanders were a gritty group."

Trotz also liked what he saw from his team in terms of high-end talent and character. One of those players: Anders Lee, New York's new captain.

Lee, who had 40 goals and 22 assists last season, has made the transition in losing Tavares much easier. He has five goals and eight assists through 15 games this season.

"His production has been at a high level for quite some time," Nelson said. "We lean on him from that aspect as well. All facets of being a leader, he exemplifies that."

That leadership showed last summer, even before Lee donned the C. While playing in Da Beauty League, a Minnesota summer hockey league, Lee challenged the Islanders to play a full team game. It's something the Islanders struggled to do as mostly an offensive team.

Fixing the defense was also one of Trotz's top priorities. That emphasis has translated to improvement on the ice. Entering Thursday, the Islanders had given up 34 goals through 14 games, fourth fewest in the league.

"We've won a lot of hockey games not because we scored five, six goals, but because we played a good all-around game from the goalies on out," Lee said. "That's how you are going to be consistent in this league. It's not that easy to have a run-and-gun game every night."

But messages, priorities and things coaches emphasis go only so far. It's what the players do on the ice that ultimately matters.

"You allow certain players to do what they do," Trotz said. "In my case, and with guys like  (the Capitals') Alex (Ovechkin) in the past, when you don't have the puck, you do what I want you to do. When you have the puck, you do what you do because I can't teach you what you do. It's just too good. And the reason being so that you can have the puck more."

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