Lane Lambert waited his entire career for the opportunity to be an NHL head coach after years as Barry Trotz's understudy and loyal assistant.
The best defense for Lambert in year one is, ironically, the argument that's being used against the man who hired him. New York Islanders President of Hockey Operations and General Manager, Lou Lamoriello, has been criticized for constructing a roster that is too old, too slow, and is missing top-level offensive skills.
That was the narrative before the season, during the year, and continued even after Lamoriello acquired All-Star center Bo Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks. For all the talk of how the Islanders would become a more offensive team this season, they finished only marginally better than the previous season. The Isles scored 2.95 goals per game, 22nd best in the league after finishing 23rd the previous season at 2.79 goals per game.
They were a better team at even strength, with their defense contributing at a much higher clip than in previous seasons. Overall, the Islander defense scored 41 goals, the most since they scored 42 in 2003-04. Their 173 points were the most since 1993-94 when they had 174 points in an 84-game season.
But the undoing of the team in the regular season and their first-round playoff matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes was the power play. The Islanders' personnel is not to be confused with the Edmonton Oilers or Toronto Maple Leafs, but they should be around league average as they were in 2021-22 when they finished 12th in the NHL. However, this year, the power play scored just 35 goals, tied for the lowest number in the league with the Philadelphia Flyers, and finished 30th in power play percentage.
All of the above, and yet, the Islanders found a way to make the playoffs and did so without Mathew Barzal for the final 23 games and survived a miserable January where they were without Adam Pelech, Kyle Palmieri, and JG Pageau for long stretches.
Lambert found a way to get them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, whereas Sunday night taught us anything can happen. They played a highly competitive, extremely close series against a favored, albeit vulnerable opponent that could've easily broken the other way with a fortuitous bounce and eliminating self-inflicted mistakes.
Did he underachieve? No. Could have been better? Yes.
"It's just more responsibility," Lambert said of being a head coach in NHL.com "The pressure part of it, it's fine. That's what we're here for. But there's a little bit more responsibility."
There were things he could've done better and things he gets credit for doing well.
It was a learning year for a first-year head coach, as we all would've expected it to be before the season started. There will be arguments as to why the Islanders need a proven head coach with a winning track record instead of Lambert. These were the same arguments made when his hiring was announced last May.
But when you consider where expectations were for this team before the season based on talent and where they finished the regular season, is all that different from where you thought they'd be?
The way they got there was perplexing, at times, frustrating, and when you don't have a track record of success, the question is going to be whether the head coach can make the adjustments necessary to get the most out of his team. Lambert did that ... eventually. Still, the lack of urgency the team showed during stretches and their inability to play 60 minutes on a consistent basis will fall on the head coach even when it's on the players to execute the way the coach has prepared them to perform. And to a man, he prepared them well.
We'll hopefully soon learn if Lambert's learning on the job season was enough for a second season behind the Islanders bench or if ownership says that the franchise needs to go into next season with a new new voice, once that perhaps has accomplished things Lambert is learning how to do.