As the veteran Islanders wing Cal Clutterbuck put it: “As cliché as it sounds, you always hear it always starts at the top. And it really does.”
Mathew Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy as the N.H.L.’s top rookie in the 2017-18 season and was the only Islander to place among the top 100 scorers in the league this past season, has noticed the difference.
“The biggest thing is the detail and the professionalism, that day-in and day-out,” he said. “Whether that’s having short hair and clean facial hair throughout the regular season or details on the ice like changing hard, coming hard to the bench, practicing hard. Just being a pro, whether you’re going out for dinner on the road or coming to the airplane, you’ve got be a pro 24-7, and they’ve really implemented that.”
This button-down approach has shown up on the ice. Lamoriello kept a good portion of the team’s core intact and made significant deals at the trade deadlines, getting Jean-Gabriel Pageau from the Ottawa Senators last season and picking up Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils in 2021. Lamoriello also signed goalie Semyon Varlamov as a free agent in 2019, and Varlamov was joined this season by Ilya Sorokin, a 2014 draft pick who starred in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League until he was 25 years old.
Lamoriello and Trotz insist on trust, teamwork and defense. That should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Lamoriello from his days with the Devils, who won championships by shutting down opponents’ offenses.
The season before Lamoriello arrived, the Islanders were the worst defensive team in the league. But in the 2018-19 season, they were the best, and this season, they finished second to the Vegas Golden Knights in goals against. Trotz and Lamoriello credit the players. The Islanders are not without offensive stars, but their strength is in coming at their opponents in waves and grinding down more talented teams.
“I’ve probably said this to every team I’ve had: If you want to go somewhere fast, go by yourself; if you want to go somewhere far, go with the group,” Trotz said after the Islanders had upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. “This group believes in the group, the strength of the group.”