The same thing Lou Lamoriello was most proud of about this year’s Islanders team is the same thing the players better be prepared for when training camp opens in September.
“Extremely proud, for a lot of different reasons. I think the receptiveness they had to change,” the first-year team president said during Monday’s breakup day on Long Island. “You can either challenge change or you can embrace it. They embraced it.”
Well, the changes are more than likely going to keep coming, as there are a handful of impact players from this year’s team that exited in a second-round sweep at the hands of the Hurricanes who are entering free agency. Most notably, those are captain Anders Lee, fellow forwards Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson, and Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner. Lamoriello expressed interest in keeping all of them — albeit in his expertly measured way.
“They did a tremendous job this year, and we’re going to have to see exactly how we can fit them all in. We’d like them back, without question,” Lamoriello said. “But they have to make decisions and we have to make decisions.”
Of course, there are other players on the free-agent market who Lamoriello would also love to bring in, chief among them Blue Jackets’ winger Artemi Panarin. With a desperate need for more high-end skill up-front, Panarin could be the game-breaking talent that could have helped this team get over the rust accumulated during its 10-day break between their first-round sweep of the Penguins and the start of their second round.
“Obviously if you look at the playoffs, we need a little more pop up-front,” first-year coach Barry Trotz said. “I think all year we knew that. That’s hopefully coming in the draft a little bit, through some of the kids. Free agency, obviously Lou will be looking at that. And our own free agents, and go from there.”
If there is more skill up-front, that might allow Trotz to loosen the reins a little on the tight defensive system that was run with aplomb for most of the season. Continuing to play that way might grow tiresome on some people, including the biggest talent on the roster in 21-year-old center Mat Barzal.
“Got to understand it’s a business and that things happen,” said Barzal, who spent most of the second half of the season on a line with Lee and Eberle. “I would love to have those guys back and fight for the playoffs again.”
Lee, who will turn 29 on July 3, expressed his interest in staying, having completed a down year statistically but a big year while the “C” was sewn to his sweater.
“It’s new to me, and it’s a process I haven’t gone through before. You just want to do whatever’s right,” Lee said. “When you try to do the right thing, you normally always do. That’s how I’ve always approached everything, always try to do things the right way.That’s no different than this situation.”
Eberle seems to be the one who might get better offers elsewhere that he can’t refuse, while Nelson and Lehner are toss-ups. It was a huge bounce-back year for Lehner in terms of his getting his personal life back in order following a stint in rehab for substance abuse and mental illness, and he was certainly grateful for the opportunity.
The 27-year-old Swede said he thinks his best days as a goalie are still in front of him, and was definitive when asked if he wanted to return.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “I can’t say enough. I love this team, I love everything about everything around.. … I’ve been very vocal about the situation here, but you never know with sports. I can only hope, and we’ll see what happens.”
So change sits on the horizon, as does the prospect of the new building at Belmont Park actually beginning construction — something Lamoriello was steadfast in his belief (and knowledge) would get done. The roster is something else entirely, and Lamoriello has never been one for complacency.
“We still have a ways to go,” he said. “There is only one thing you strive for and that’s the ultimate — that’s winning.”
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