The good citizens of Nassau County live on Long Island, not in Long Island. If you are of Long Island, you know this. It’s something New York Islanders captain Anders Lee quickly points out when you speak with him, and there’s more than a hint of pride in his voice when he bequeaths this knowledge to an outsider.
There have been many opinions voiced by outsiders about Long Island over the years, and the only major sports franchise to represent the borough has taken its share of hits as a result. The halcyon days of the Dynasty Islanders, which won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, gave way to decades of frustration and mismanagement. (ESPN even had a “30 for 30” documentary on con man/would-be team owner John Spano.) But with a new regime taking over recently, stability is the new vibe in the area.
While the Isles appeared to be in rebuild mode last summer, the underdog crew flipped the script: not only did they make the playoffs, they vied for a division title during the season and swept Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. All praise be to Saint David Volek.
Or, more accurately, point your praise to the architects of the turnaround: owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz. That group came together to build a tenacious, suffocating squad that upended the Eastern Conference in its first post-John Tavares campaign. Now the mission is one of continuity. While the Tavares circus left town long ago, the Islanders do have more free agents to deal with this summer, and a good number of them are important cast members. But instead of dread, there is a different aura to this Islanders group. Even after getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in Round 2, it doesn’t feel like an ending; it feels like a beginning.
For years, Long Island was derided by many in the hockey world as an undesirable destination. It was Manhattan’s plain, suburban cousin, the team that was only awarded NHL entry as a thumb in the eye to the encroaching WHA. And that remoteness was always seen as a negative.
But driving from LaGuardia Airport in Queens down the Grand Central Parkway, it’s hard not to be caught by the bucolic treelined road, passing under charming stone bridges as the shackles and intensity of the most famous city in the world slips away. You can still listen to Hot 97 on the radio, where nine of the most buzzworthy hip-hop tracks in the land play on a seemingly endless repeat, and you can still find a Shake Shack with ease. But you are now somewhere else.
Despite working for the rival New Jersey Devils for nearly 30 years, Lamoriello never had much of a beat on Long Island. “Honesty is the most important thing you can give anyone,” he said. “I can look through a set of eyes where I didn’t know a lot about the island itself, other than coming to play, driving to the Marriott, walking across the parking lot to the game, getting on a bus and going back.”
When it became apparent that Lamoriello’s three-year tenure as GM in Toronto was ending, Malkin approached the hockey legend for the Islanders job. Malkin and business partner Ledecky had become the full-time owners of the franchise in 2016 after buying into Charles Wang’s team two years prior. Malkin promised Lamoriello full autonomy in his decisions, and with the commitment and vision Lamoriello saw from the owner, the deal was sealed.
Lamoriello knew a little bit about the franchise thanks to his son Chris, who had joined the Islanders as director of player personnel in 2016, but nothing deep. “You never know what’s inside,” Lamoriello said. “You never know the reasons for why things go good, bad or indifferent. But I still had the feeling and the drive to do what was necessary.”
One of Lamoriello’s most important moves was bringing in Trotz, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory with the Washington Capitals. All of a sudden, the Islanders had a potent brain trust and reason to hope that a playoff berth was possible for the first time since 2016. “The past two years prior to this hadn’t sat well with us,” Lee said. “There were a lot of changes in the summer, and that meant coming together as a team, coming together as guys in the room, working for one another and having each other’s backs. Lou and Barry have done a tremendous job in setting that up and making it such a focal point. A lot of character guys came in this summer that meant a lot to this room.”
At first, those moves looked curious. Lamoriello picked up two of his former Maple Leafs in Leo Komarov and Matt Martin (though Martin had played for the Isles in the past), plus Valtteri Filppula, who was coming off a forgettable season with the Philadelphia Flyers. All three had poor possession numbers the year prior, but all three brought experience and character to the room.
Speaking of character, it’s hard to find someone with more of it than Lee, the 28-year-old goal-scorer who took over the captaincy vacated by Tavares in the summer. Eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1, Lee has become the total package in New York. A sixth-round draft pick back in 2009, the Minnesota native played for two of the most love-to-hate high-school teams in the state: St. Thomas Academy, a private school that beat up on small-town squads for years before finally joining the big-school bracket recently, and Edina, a tiny suburban powerhouse with four state titles in the past decade, including 2019.
Lee is sure that teammate Brock Nelson, who played for Warroad high school in the state’s rugged northern Iron Range, would have called him a “cake-eater” had their teams faced each other, but the captain comes by his letter earnestly. That’s a sentiment echoed by the entire club. “The biggest thing with Anders is that he’s a leader,” said linemate Jordan Eberle. “He doesn’t try to lead, it’s just his personality. He does the right thing all the time, and since getting the ‘C’ he hasn’t changed.”
A two-sport star with the Hornets, Lee was also recruited to play NCAA football by several Div. I schools, which was a big reason why his NHL draft stock slipped to the latter rounds. In the end, he chose hockey and wore the ‘C’ at Notre Dame before turning pro.
They play for each other, and they’re not afraid to work. It’s a pleasure as a coach at any level to have a group that will put in the work and do what it takes – Barry Trotz
Picking a new captain went through Trotz and Lamoriello. The Isles were asked to name four or five teammates with leadership qualities, players who other guys would go to when they needed to talk about something. Lee may have been a quiet guy at the time, but he was mature. And his name came up a lot, despite the fact he hadn’t worn a letter the year before. “He’s infectious in his humility,” Lamoriello said. “Yet he has strong convictions. Team is first. Everything we hoped he would bring, he has done, without question.”
Lee has also been active off the ice, providing scholarships for youngsters and raising money for cancer charities. Technically he’s only the captain of the hockey team, but sometimes it can feel like he’s repping the whole borough. “It’s a family in the room, a family in the organization, and the second we step outside, Long Island is our family,” he said. “We represent what it means to be an Islander, not just in hockey. People who live out here are an extremely hardworking and passionate group that care for each other, and we try to represent that as much as we can on the ice.”
Oh, and Lee is pretty good at hockey, too. While his offensive numbers were down this year (more on that later), he does have a 40-goal season under his belt and a unique skill set that is hard to find these days. “In my opinion, he’s one of the best net-front guys in the league,” Eberle said. “He’s big and strong, he’s able to tip pucks with his hand-eye coordination, and he’s got a good shot, too.”
If Eberle wants to keep the good times rolling with Lee, he’ll also have to put pen to paper this summer. Originally traded to the Islanders by Edmonton, Eberle, too, is poised to become a UFA on July 1. But again, he appears to be in a pretty good spot right now.
As part of that young Oilers core that never really got off the ground, Eberle saw the post-season just once in his seven years with Edmonton. And it didn’t go very well, as he tallied just two assists in 13 games in 2017. “It seemed like I was under the gun in Edmonton, even though we won the first round,” he said. “A lot of attention was on me in a negative way, and I was trying to find my game and fight out of that.”
It didn’t happen. Eberle was sent to New York that summer in exchange for center Ryan Strome. The trade was one for one. Edmonton later shipped Strome to the Rangers for Ryan Spooner, then waived Spooner to the minors before trading him to Vancouver for Sam Gagner, who had spent most of the year in the minors himself.
While there was a lot of pressure in Edmonton, Eberle believes the same standards apply on Long Island, and he doesn’t shy away from it. That’s what makes hockey fun in his opinion. This year, Eberle kicked off the playoffs with a bang. He was the offensive catalyst in the sweep of Pittsburgh, playing on the top line with Lee and young franchise center Mathew Barzal. “He’s a good person, and that’s where you start,” Lamoriello said. “He wanted to have success, he wanted to be good. He’s a team guy, never questioned his role and as hard a worker as anybody out there. His success in the playoffs started near the end of the regular season, because he had worked so diligently and never got frustrated.”
The fact that Eberle, who just turned 29, had been through the professional ringer already proved to be a boon for the team. “He’s one of the most skilled players I’ve seen, and he means a lot to this room,” Lee said. “He’s extremely easygoing, and he has taken some guys under his wing and taught them a lot, like ‘Barzy’ and ‘Beau’ (Anthony Beauvillier). A lot of those things go unnoticed sometimes, so it’s great to see him get rewarded.”
Offensively, Eberle’s best NHL season came way back in 2011-12, when he posted 76 points in 78 games for the Oilers. Last year, his first with the Islanders, he had a respectable 59 points in 81 games. But neither of those campaigns ended with a playoff berth. This time around, Eberle’s numbers were down to 37 points in 78 games, but the team was a success. That’s a trade-off the Islanders are more than happy to make. “I take my hat off to this group,” Lamoriello said. “Collectively, individually, they have given total buy-in, total commitment and were willing to give up their own identity and put the logo first. Their roles would change, their ice time would change, and they would fall into whatever role was best for the team.”
That new collective identity was decidedly effective. Under Trotz, the Islanders famously went from the worst defensive team in the NHL to the best in one season. In fact, in the 10 years before Trotz arrived, no NHL team had surrendered as many goals as New York. That old Lamoriello chestnut about playing for the crest on the front instead of the name on the back? It was in full effect on Long Island this season. “They play for each other,” Trotz said. “And they’re not afraid to work. It’s a pleasure as a coach at any level to have a group that will put in the work and do what it takes.”
There was another reason for the defensive turnaround, however, and it came in net. While Thomas Greiss has probably been a little underrated since arriving in town three seasons ago, his new batterymate made a world of difference.
Robin Lehner came to Long Island with bigger-than-hockey issues and a huge question mark above his head. All he did was win the Jennings Trophy with Greiss (fewest goals against in the NHL), tie for fourth in shutouts with six in 46 appearances and then stonewall the Penguins in Round 1 before giving Carolina practically nothing in three of four games in Round 2. Oh, and he became a Vezina Trophy finalist for the first time in his career.
Based on what he accomplished this season, you’d think Lehner had been a sought-after commodity on the open market, but truly there was more to the story.
Lehner, who had previously played for Ottawa and Buffalo, had never established himself as a consistent NHL performer, and in September 2018, he publicly revealed why. For years, he had been battling bipolar disorder and past personal traumas, which led to substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. In March 2018, Lehner finally sought treatment through the NHL and NHLPA, and he was now looking for a new crease job.
When Lamoriello first met with him in the summer, he didn’t know of Lehner’s personal struggles. At the time, it was simply a matter of New York needing a goaltender and Lehner needing a team. “It was a good opportunity that arose at the time,” Lehner said. “I was going to be patient to see what would open up, and this felt right. It’s a little bit lucky for both parties because I know they were trying to get some other goalies that went other places. I was down the line. It wasn’t like I was the first choice.”
For the GM who values honesty, Lehner admirably laid all his cards on the table. “We sat for five hours at the Marriott, and he told me where he was as an individual, as a person first,” Lamoriello said. “He wanted to resurrect his career, and he was prepared to do what was necessary. And he needed support to do it. He gave me the comfortability of trust and belief. These are difficult things. In my past experience (with other players who needed off-ice help), it’s difficult to overcome. There are bumps.”
Before making his decision, Lamoriello had Trotz sit down for an independent meeting with Lehner, who found both men to be open-minded about his situation. The GM also suggested that Lehner move to Long Island right away and that the NHL and NHLPA be kept in the loop. While Long Island happens to be a pretty good place to raise a family, the locale also worked perfectly for a player who needed to be closer to his wife and kids anyway. “It’s really nice out here,” Lehner said. “I live close to the Coliseum, and it’s a really good neighborhood. I haven’t been out and about too much this year, I’ve been working on my recovery and being with my family, doing what I need to do, but there are good people here.”
Off the ice, Lehner’s teammates were supportive, making sure to help him avoid situations that could stunt his recovery. On the ice, the netminder had support from two coaches who helped take his game to the next level.
I didn’t know a lot about the island itself, other than coming to play, driving to the Marriott, walking across the parking lot to the game, getting on a bus and going back – Lou Lamoriello
When Trotz came to Long Island, he brought along his old pal Mitch Korn, the goaltending guru best known for his work with Dominik Hasek, Pekka Rinne and Braden Holtby. Lehner is quick to point out, however, that Korn is the team’s director of goaltending, while the official goalie coach is Piero Greco, a man who deserves just as much credit as his more famous peer. “We’ve stayed on top of some key things,” Lehner said. “Neither coach goes in and tries to change your style. They work with the style you have and try to improve things. They’ve worked with me on my positioning, and I’ve been getting really comfortable with my positional play. It’s one of my strengths.”
When Lehner signed in New York, he did so on a one-year deal worth just $1.5 million. It was very much a show-and-prove contract, and he did plenty to justify another pact. Given what this year has meant for Lehner, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him re-sign with the team, albeit at more of a markup this time. “Everything has been clicking better,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to come to the rink.”
Lehner, Lee, Eberle and Filppula all need new contracts this summer, and the Islanders have plenty of cap space. In previous years, money alone wasn’t enough to keep free agents with the franchise, but the past has no impact on the present. Lamoriello believes that current and past players are the best recruiters, and with this year’s results the future looks promising. “Substance,” Lamoriello said, “conquers any questions.”
Backing up words with actions helps, too. Lamoriello himself bought a house on Long Island, and his picture of the borough is a lot more complete than it was during his New Jersey days. He points to all the Islanders alumni still living in the area, including John Tonelli, Clark Gillies and Butch Goring. In March, the organization held a Bill Torrey Night to honor the GM and architect of the franchise’s four championship titles. Naturally, many of his former players were in attendance. “Not only did they all come back, but they were already here,” Lamoriello said. “That endorsed everything I was experiencing.”
There is also the lure of a new arena on its way for the 2021-22 season. Located on the grounds of the Belmont Park horse-racing track, it will bring the Islanders back to their traditional fan base after several seasons in Brooklyn at the basketball-centric Barclays Center. While Nassau Coliseum will always be a part of the team’s history – and two opening-round playoff games there this year were particularly raucous – everyone knew a more permanent solution was needed for the team.
While this iteration of the Islanders has a long way to go before they get the kind of status their early 1980s forefathers inspire, it is fair to say the organization, from the players to the staff, understands what it means to represent Long Island. It’s not about points, and it’s not always about glory, but it feels real good for those involved. “We win by community,” Eberle said. “Barry has said it before, there is strength in this group. When everyone in the room feels that, it creates a bond.”