It’s impossible, and far too early, to determine whether the New York Islanders are actually better off without John Tavares than with him. But we know this much. They are now 1-0-0 against Tavares and have 44 points in 37 games, which is exactly how many they had last season with Tavares as their star player and face of the franchise. And you get the sense that this is not a team that is going to fall off a cliff the way last year’s team did.
We also know that Mat Barzal, Tavares’ replacement in all categories, is well equipped to replace the former captain. Barzal’s natural hat trick against the Maple Leafs in the Islanders 4-0 win Saturday night, the first-ever meeting between Tavares and his former team, put a very tidy exclamation point on that. Thrust into a starring role, Barzal has embraced the pressure that comes with it and under Trotz is a far better player in his own zone. He sure looked like a player on a mission to prove everyone that the sky is not going to fall in just because Tavares left town. “Anytime you play on Hockey Night in Canada and come into the mecca of hockey, you try to play a good game,” Barzal said. “If you don’t come prepared to play against these guys, they’ll eat you up.”
We all know that revenge is a dish best served cold and the Islanders dined on that all night. Coach Barry Trotz said after the game that his team controlled the proceedings from the opening faceoff and that, “the game never felt like it was ever in doubt.” Even though Tavares won a mind-boggling 15 of 19 faceoffs and had five shots on goal, he didn’t actually appear to be that dangerous.
So are the Islanders better, or at least as good, without Tavares as they would be with him? Neither Trotz nor former GM Lou Lamoriello thinks so. And they’re probably right. With Trotz behind the bench and Tavares drawing all the tough assignments, the Islanders might have five or six more points by now. But perhaps what Tavares’ departure did was force the Islanders to create an identity they may not have had before. After all, this is a team that is battling for a playoff spot when most hockey observers predicted they’d be more likely to be battling for Jack Hughes. There is very much an us-against-the-world mentality here and an esprit du corps that has made this team a very difficult out.
“All I can say is that I knew the pieces that we had,” Trotz said. Then he went on to say something very interesting. He lauded Lamoriello for acquiring both Leo Komarov and Matt Martin, who were fourth-line players with the Leafs and sometimes, much-maligned players. Komarov has helped drive the third line, with another surprisingly positive acquisition in Valtteri Filppula, and Martin has reunited with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck on the fourth unit. But more importantly, they have provided the Islanders young charges with a template for being a pro on and off the ice. Apparently, Komarov rarely lets Josh Ho-Sang out of his sight.
“They’ve been really big pieces for the development of our young players,” Trotz said. “Obviously we had inside trading with Lou knowing those guys. I knew ‘Marty’ a little bit, but I didn’t know Leo very well, plus I can’t understand him half the time. I wasn’t too sure. Lou explained it to me the reasons, but I wasn’t sure. Now I’m sure. I understand fully.”
Lamoriello, of course, was part of the complete overhaul of the Islanders over the summer, a creditable hockey man who was brought in to convince Tavares to stay, but could not. So he set about to building the Islanders, in part by acquiring Martin and Komarov, two players most observers again thought would contribute more to a tanking effort than a playoff spot.
“I’m an orchestra guy,” Lamoriello said. “I love music and I watch the orchestra. I’ve always said if one instrument is out of tune, the music isn’t good. You need all different types of players. What they bring with their character and all the little things, you just can’t teach. I knew ‘Marty’ from when he played against us in New Jersey and I tried to get Leo when he was a free agent and he came back from the KHL. It’s hard to explain. Those players, to me, I’ve had them all my life, all my career. They bring something.”
It seemed strange that the Maple Leafs, who have done a much better embracing their past under president Brendan Shanahan, saw fit to honor Martin and Komarov with video tributes without paying any homage to Lamoriello, the man who orchestrated the tank that allowed them to draft Auston Matthews first overall and established a culture that has in many ways resulted in the team you see on the ice now. For the record, Lamoriello said he was not asked by the Leafs about a tribute before the game. “I don’t even think of those things,” said Lamoriello, who also said “without question” there will be a tribute to Tavares when he returns to Long Island Feb. 28 in a game that fittingly, will be played at Nassau Coliseum.
But it’s clear the Islanders have moved on and Saturday night was another chapter in that process. “We’re not looking back,” Trotz said. “We’ve got to look forward. That era is done and we’re trying to create a new era.”