Andy Graziano, SNY.TV Twitter
The New York Islanders missed the Stanley Cup playoffs last season by one point, in large part due to starting the season 6-10-4. The points that teams bank earlier in the season come home to roost when the hockey season hits games Nos. 50, 60, 70 and beyond.
Although the Islanders recorded 58 points over their final 45 games last year, their slow start cost them. Whether the fault belongs to the players, former head coach Jack Capuano, the special teams or another factor, the result -- a spring and summer spent watching other teams battle for perhaps the most prestigious trophy in sports -- is done.
"Our run at the end of the season was a bright spot, if you want to look at it that way. But we finished short," defenseman Thomas Hickey said after Saturday's practice at Northwell Health Ice Center. "Sitting back and watching playoff hockey is not fun. That's fresh in our minds much more than how we ended. It's all about our start. First 15 to 20 games, they go by quick, but you realize you are at the quarter mark already. The years we've started better, you've seen the results, especially our special teams. If you can take care of those things, you'll win the majority of your games early on."
While many pundits believe the Islanders' defense remains the largest question entering the 2017-18 season after trading Travis Hamonic to the Flames for three draft picks, Hickey is optimistic.
"We're going to miss Travis as a teammate and a person," Hickey said. "I'm excited about how he is going to do in Calgary, he's a real good buddy of mine. But we would not have made that trade if we didn't believe in our depth. And guys like Adam (Pelech), Ryan (Pulock) and the rest of us, frankly, have to fill that void. I'm very confident we can."
New York has played just one preseason game, a 3-2 overtime victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. It plays the Rangers tonight before a split-squad meeting Wednesday against the Flyers. How the defense gels and comes together as a cohesive six-man unit will rely on not only the development of the youngsters, but also the continued steadiness of players like Hickey and Calvin de Haan.
"We can learn a lot from last season, from the way we started to the way we finished," center Casey Cizikas said. "The way we ended was how we are capable of playing. Going into this year, we're going to have tons of confidence, tons of jump. We pissed away a lot of points last year and that hurt us in the end. We can't let that happen again. This camp is going to be a big stepping stone for the young guys now that Travis is gone too. They have an opportunity to really step in and play some big minutes. We're going to need all of them to be successful".
The Islanders will be counting on Pelech to step up this season. Despite only having 53 games of NHL experience, GM Garth Snow protected the 23-year-old defenseman in the expansion draft.
"I don't think it creates any additional pressure," said Pelech, who said he has made a "complete recovery" from thoracic outlet syndrome. "We have a lot of good defenseman battling for minutes and a spot on the team, so there is a lot of healthy competition. Sometimes, when you lose a guy like Travis, a player of his caliber, it takes more than just one guy to step up and take on bigger roles. I'm looking forward to see what happens here."
Head coach Doug Weight has already brought an up-tempo pace and a sense of physicality to the Islanders' practices in East Meadow. It's clear this training camp already has a different feel to it than the ones under Capuano. Weight typically has all eight of his coaches on the ice, barking instruction or providing a little extra boost to help the players through end-session suicide drills.
Clearly, the Islanders are aiming to start the season on the right note.