The NHL has not yet released its schedule for 2021-22, but the Islanders already are certain of one thing: They will not open at home. And it is likely they will not play at home for several weeks.
To team president Lou Lamoriello, it is a small price to pay to buy enough time to get UBS Arena at Belmont Park completed and play a full home schedule there.
“I’m looking at this as a glass half-full,” he said Tuesday on a season-ending conference call with reporters. “The excitement of being able to play all available home games, 41 of them, in front of our own fans, that motivates you to maybe get over any discomfort in what the road will be like.”
Officials have said UBS Arena should be ready in November but have not set a date. Lamoriello declined to identify one, saying it is “a moving target.” But he was told just under 1,000 people were working on the arena as of Tuesday.
The NHL is targeting an Oct. 12 start date for next season. Based on recent precedent, it should not be difficult for the league to buy at least three weeks from there for the Islanders.
In 2007, when the Prudential Center was being constructed, Lamoriello’s Devils opened with nine road games, returning to Newark 23 days after their first game. None of the nine was outside the Eastern Time Zone.
The last three of those games were nearby – at the Flyers, Islanders and Rangers.
In 2013, when Madison Square Garden was being renovated, the Rangers opened on the West Coast and played nine consecutive road games, returning to New York 25 days after their first game. (That team eventually reached the Stanley Cup Final.)
Lamoriello said that even if the Islanders open out West, the fact they can return to the area to visit the Rangers, Devils, Flyers and/or Bruins makes such a stretch less taxing for players and their families.
But how long of a road trip is too long?
“If your team is playing well and you’re on the road and you’re winning, it’s like you’re not on the road,” Lamoriello said, adding, “I try very hard not to look at it as a negative. I’m more concerned with the way we’re playing at that given time.”
Barring a significant delay in the arena’s completion, it appears the team will do everything possible to avoid a Plan B, such as another return to Nassau Coliseum or some other detour. (Preseason home games will be played at the Bridgeport Islanders’ Webster Bank Arena, which holds about 8,400 for hockey.)
Lamoriello said he is confident NHL schedule-makers will take players’ well-being into consideration. “I’m comfortable that we’ll get a schedule we can live with,” he said.