UNIONDALE, N.Y. – When the New York Islanders trudged off the ice following their NHL-worst 47th regulation defeat, they tried to move forward as quickly as possible.
That applied to everyone, from the fresh-faced rookies at the core of the youth movement to the grizzled veterans who hope to be a part of something good before their careers are over.
“What’s gained was experience,” said 20-year-old forward Kyle Okposo at the end of his first full NHL season. “We went through quite a bit of down the first half of the year, especially.
“That is something that I never want to experience again. That is going to help all of us who played on this team for next year because we’re not going to want to do that again.
“We don’t want to go through slides like that and know that the playoffs are a distant hope at Christmas.”
There was little fun to be had around Long Island as the hometown team skidded to a mark of 26-47-9 – the worst record in the 30-team NHL.
Injuries, such as the knee ailment that sidelined franchise goalie Rick DiPietro for all but five games, besieged the team that already was coming off a non-playoff season, and cost the Islanders about 600 man-games.
Second-leading scorer Doug Weight, along with Trent Hunter, Okposo, fellow rookie Josh Bailey, and others all missed chunks of the season that really never got started under first-year coach Scott Gordon.
He was also finding his way after moving up from the AHL.
“They made the second half fly by,” Gordon said of his young team, “because of their attitude, their commitment to practice, their work. We try to get better every day.”
That process will continue Tuesday, the second day of the long offseason, when the NHL holds the draft lottery. One thing the worst record afforded the Islanders was the best chance to get the first pick in a draft that features two stud players at the top.
Forward John Tavares could be the top prize to the team that wins the lottery, or the choice could be big Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman. New York has about a 48 per cent chance to end up with the top pick, but is assured of dropping no lower than No. 2.
The teams with the five worst records are the only clubs with a chance to pick No. 1. All 14 non-playoff teams go into the hopper, but the winning team can move up only four places.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, who won the right to pick Steven Stamkos No. 1 last year, have the second-best chance to pick first again.
They’re followed by the Colorado Avalanche, who had the worst record in the Western Conference, Atlanta Thrashers and Los Angeles Kings as the only teams that can move up to No. 1.
Unlike last year, when Islanders general manager Garth Snow traded down twice from the No. 5 pick to nab Bailey at No. 9, New York will most assuredly grab Tavares or Hedman.
Either one would fit nicely into a core of youngsters the Islanders hope will return them to glory.
It might be necessary soon, as the club is trying to get approval for a refurbished home arena and developmental project bogged down in politics.
If team owner Charles Wang’s Lighthouse Project doesn’t pass, the club could be sold and moved, or it could be relocated by Wang.
As if there wasn’t enough to worry about for the Islanders. They endured losing streaks of 10 and eight games and were outscored 24-5 in dropping their final four games of the season.
“We definitely grew as a team, for sure,” the 19-year-old Bailey said. “We went through stretches where we showed a lot of good things, and even if we were losing games, we were still in them for the most part. There’s a lot of good things to be taken out of it.
“We didn’t want to end the year with the losses we had, but all in all you can’t focus on the past week.”
The best thing to come out of the season was the play of defenceman Mark Streit, who was the Islanders’ clear-cut MVP with a team-leading 56 points – including 40 assists – after signing a big free-agent deal last summer.
Okposo surged in the second half and finished with 18 goals and 39 points. At 38, Weight was limited to 53 games but managed 38 points.
He already agreed to a one-year deal for next season and is the likely choice to take over as captain for Bill Guerin, who was dealt to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline.
“You can’t say anything great can come out of it when you come in 30th place, but there are reasons and there’s a different feeling here than maybe someone from the outside looking in,” Weight said.
“I feel relatively good that we can be in position to fight for a playoff spot next year. Hopefully it happens.
“There is sun around the mountain. There is something good being built here and hopefully it’s sooner than later. Believe me, you’re talking to the guy who wants it sooner than later.”