UNIONDALE, N.Y. – The New York Islanders finally found their stride, it just came way too late to salvage this non-playoff season.
Roster shake-ups and injuries made the headlines, most notably the trade of popular forward Matt Moulson to Buffalo, and the loss of star captain John Tavares, who had his season wrecked by a torn knee ligament sustained in the Sochi Olympics.
And he wasn’t the only one to go down. Fellow forward Kyle Okposo also missed time, along with defencemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Radek Martinek. By the time the Islanders surged down the stretch, they were featuring upward of 11 rookies in the lineup.
In all, they had over 250 man-games lost to injury in a disappointing season in which they failed to make a return trip to the playoffs. Only defenceman Thomas Hickey played in every game.
Okposo credited coach Jack Capuano for New York’s strong finish even though the Islanders had only pride to play for. The Islanders said Monday that Capuano will return for his fifth season.
The team is 117-120-38 under Capuano, who has the second-most games coached and second-most wins in franchise history.
“Cappy’s system worked really well at the end of the year,” said Okposo, who finished with a team-high 27 goals and 69 points in 71 games. “We were outplaying teams, outworking them. Everybody was playing extremely structured and playing in the framework of our team.
“For whatever reason we got away from that at different times throughout the year.”
The Islanders went 17-5-2 in their final 24 road games and were 8-2-2 overall in their last 12 games despite dressing at least nine rookies in each contest.
That provides optimism for the future in addition to the healthy returns of the 23-year-old Tavares and soon-to-be 26-year-old Okposo.
“I don’t think we’re far off at all,” defenceman Travis Hamonic said. “I certainly believe in the group we have.”
Tavares’ injury was a blow both on and off the ice. The clear face of the franchise was missed as the Islanders tried to compensate for his absence. Losing him when he wasn’t even playing for the club made it that much more difficult to stomach.
Tavares finished second to Okposo with 24 goals and 66 assists despite playing in only 59 games. He is on track to be fully healthy in time for next season.
“I’m feeling really good,” Tavares said Monday as the Islanders packed up for the summer. “I saw the doctor this morning. The good news is I’ll be starting on the ice at some point next week, so I’m looking forward to doing that but I’ll start fairly slowly and progression the same as it has been off the ice.
“I’m looking forward to those next steps and getting much closer to being cleared to play. Things have gone really well and I’ve put a lot of time and effort into my recovery. It’s been hard watching, but I’m looking forward to getting back to being 100 per cent.”
The trade of free-agent-to-be Moulson—Tavares’ close friend—on Oct. 27 for Thomas Vanek cast a pall over the club. Vanek, also set to be a free agent, was then sent packing to Montreal at the March trade deadline.
New York went into a 4-13-2 swoon in November and early December and fell out of contention. The Islanders finished last in the eight-team Metropolitan Division. Their strong road record of 21-18-2 was offset by a poor home mark of 13-19-9.
“It’s frustrating, we did so many good things in the previous year and we had such a good run,” Hamonic said. “Things didn’t go as planned this year, that’s just how the game goes unfortunately. I don’t want to be standing here next season having this conversation again. That’s a pretty common theme in our locker room.”
New York reached the playoffs last year after a five-season absence and lost a tough, six-game first-round series to Pittsburgh. But the once-proud franchise that captured the Stanley Cup four straight years from 1980-83 hasn’t won a playoff series since 1993.
Next season will be the Islanders’ last on Long Island in Nassau Coliseum before a move to Brooklyn.
Brock Nelson, who had 14 goals and 26 points in his first NHL season, will likely have a larger role then and in the future, along with fellow rookie centre Anders Lee.
“These kids have played extremely hard,” Capuano said Sunday after the Islanders’ season-ending win at Buffalo. “I’m proud of what they’ve done not only in the last month and a half but these last three games on this road trip.”