Islanders Enter Season With Cup Hopes, New Arena Set To Open

New York Islanders center Brock Nelson (29) celebrates with teammates Erik Gustafsson (64) and Richard Panik (16) after scoring a goal against the New York Rangers during the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)
New York Islanders center Brock Nelson (29) celebrates with teammates Erik Gustafsson (64) and Richard Panik (16) after scoring a goal against the New York Rangers during the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)
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Barry Trotz knows the feeling of raising the Stanley Cup along with the failed journeys it sometimes takes to get there.

Now he is trying to recapture that magic with the New York Islanders.

Trotz goes into his fourth season as Islanders coach with arguably the franchise's best chance to win a championship since the glory days of the early 1980s. New York reached the semifinals each of the past two years and looks primed to get over the hump in the first season in a sparkling new arena at Belmont Park.

“We continue to try to build and try to take the next step,” said Trotz, who won the Stanley Cup in 2018, his fourth season in Washington. “We want to get to the summit like the other 31 teams in the league.”

Stopping them short the previous two playoffs were the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who lost valuable players to a salary cap crunch. A bit of that happened to the Islanders with the trade of defenseman Nick Leddy to Detroit and Jordan Eberle going to Seattle in the expansion draft, but general manager Lou Lamoriello kept the core in tact and captain Anders Lee is back after missing much of last season with a knee injury.

“It obviously shows a lot of confidence from Lou in the staff and Barry and everyone in the group that we have, and we have that within the room,” Lee said. “To kind of pick up where we left off is a great opportunity and a chance to get right back at it in the same way.”

All the ingredients of a Stanley Cup contender are there: one of the best coaches in hockey, strong goaltending with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, a solid blue line of defensemen who have played together for a while, offensive star Mathew Barzal leading a deep forward group and the free agent additions of veterans Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara to change up the mix ever so slightly.

Lamoriello, 78, has already won the Cup three times with New Jersey and refuses to think ahead to the spring and summer before the puck is dropped on the regular season.

“If we do it right, then we have a chance, and that’s all you ask is to get a chance,” Lamoriello said.

NEW ARENA

After decades of questions about the future of the organization, an ill-fated move to Brooklyn and a final few years at renovated Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders finally have a permanent home. UBS Arena stabilizes the Islanders and, along with Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, could be something of a gold standard for NHL rinks.

“It’s going to be something special,” Lamoriello said. “It’s an exciting part for our fans and Islander hockey.”

LEE’S RETURN

A torn ACL in Lee’s right knee in March kept him from being on the ice with teammates during the stretch run and playoffs. But after months of rehab, he’s feeling good and the restrictions are gone.

“It’s just relieving having him back out there and seeing him buzz around and look faster, I would even say, than last year,” Barzal said.

Lamoriello used cap space freed by Lee’s injury to acquire Kyle Palmieri from New Jersey and was able to sign the talented forward long term. Getting Lee back is an extra boost.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Before opening the new arena Nov. 20, the Islanders open the season on a 13-game road trip. And only one of those games — stop No. 11 at the Devils — would even allow players, coaches and staff to potentially sleep in their own beds.

The road trip presents a series of obstacles, though players are looking on the bright side at the opportunity to bond, which was missing last season because of pandemic restrictions.

“You get to spend more time with the guys and go to dinners and stuff like that,” Lee said. "There will be challenges no matter what, especially to get off to a good start and open up for a few teams in their buildings. That’s exciting stuff, and it’s going to be great games. The carrot at the end of that road trip is to open up our building."

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Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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