John Kreiser columnist

After nine years away from the National Hockey League, no one is more eager for opening night than Ted Nolan.
“I can’t wait to get started,” says Nolan, who returned to the NHL this season as coach of the New York Islanders. Nolan hasn’t been behind an NHL bench since 1996-97, when he won the Jack Adams Award by coaching the Buffalo Sabres to a surprising Adams Division title.
Nolan got back into coaching last season and quickly led Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to the Memorial Cup championship game. This persuaded Isles owner Charles Wang that Nolan was the man to revitalize a team that fell apart down the stretch last spring.

Nolan and the Islanders begin their season Thursday night in Phoenix, the first stop on a season-opening four-game Western road trip. Though beginning the season 2,500 miles from home might sound like an odd idea, Nolan sees it as a chance for his players and a new coaching staff to come together as a team.

“We’re trying to get to know each other,” Nolan says. “The players who were here last year and the ones we brought in — it’s a growing process. You don’t just turn around and do that in three weeks of training camp. We’ve added some character onto the team — (Chris) Simon, (Sean) Hill; they’re adding an element that maybe wasn’t here last year.

“People say that when you go on the road early, you build your team. This is a good way to start — the weather should be nice, the guys will get a chance to go out to dinner and get together. We’ll have a chance for teammates to get to know each other. It will be fun.”

The Islanders played only five exhibition games, losing the first two before winning the last three — including a pair over their biggest rivals, the Rangers. The most notable thing about the Nolan-led Isles was their aggressiveness, something that was in short supply on Long Island last season.

“We want to attack the puck,” he says of his philosophy. “We want to make sure there’s a lot of physical contact — that gets you into the game. Doing things right once in a while isn’t good enough. If you attack they other team — the more you have the puck, the less they’ll have it.”

Though Nolan has been away from the NHL since the spring of 1997, he feels there haven’t really been a lot of changes in the game during his absence.

“I really don’t think the game has changed all that much,” he says “The clutching and grabbing should have been out 20 years ago, not just the last two years. But it’s still the same thing — the emotion is still there, the puck is still round and you’ve got to put the puck in the net more than the other team. The players are basically the same — they’re great athletes and they want information to make them better. Maybe the skill level has gotten a little better, but outside of that, not too much.”

Nolan is demanding more from some of his key veterans. During the exhibition season, for example, he used No. 1 center Alexei Yashin as a penalty killer, with good results for both player and team.

“Any player likes a lot of responsibility,” Yashin says of his inclusion on the penalty-killing unit. “I think being on the penalty kill helps me. When you’re missing 5-6 minutes (while your team is killing penalties), it’s tough to get back again. Even if you’re only playing 10 or 15 seconds on the penalty kill, you don’t miss your shift. It keeps you going in a certain rhythm. Hopefully I can do it well enough to stay.”

Few people expect the Islanders to make the playoffs — several publications have predicted that they’ll finish last in the Eastern Conference. But goaltender Rick DiPietro says Nolan is raising the bar for his new team.

“Ted has come in here and instilled in us that he has high expectations,” says DiPietro. “Anything less than winning the Stanley Cup is unacceptable. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to put a timetable on it, but that’s our goal, We’re not going to sit here and allow people with low expectations to dictate how we play.”

Nor are he and his teammates worried about what’s being written about them.

“We’re coming to win hockey games — that’s the bottom line,” he says. “Who cares what they say? Our job is to win hockey games. My job is to stop pucks. If I stop the puck and we win games, it won’t matter what anyone says.”

Yashin says Nolan has blown away a lot of the negativity that surrounded the Islanders last season.

“Ted gives everyone a positive feeling, both me personally and the team,” Yashin says “We’re concentrating more on what we have to do on the ice, instead of what’s going on and what’s going wrong — all the negatives. He focuses on what we have to do and what we have to do better in our system.”

Nolan isn’t concerned about what happened last season or what’s been written about his team — only what it can accomplish.

“I watched some tapes (of last season) , but that’s water under the bridge now,” he says. “We know they didn’t have too much success, but we’re not worried about that. We’re worried about what we have now and how we’re going to get better.”

Perhaps the biggest task in front of Nolan is trying to turn the Islanders into a team after the club fell apart last season amid a coaching change and a slew of injuries, as well as an off-season that saw upheaval in the front office. It’s a challenge he’s looking forward to.

“The fun part for me, whether it’s in junior hockey or pros, is building a team,” Nolan says. “We took 60 guys up to (training camp in) Yarmouth, then all of a sudden, we cut them down to 35, then 30, then 26 Jelling the team as a unit; to me that’s always been the most intriguing part of the game — not just assembling talent, but putting a team together. That’s a fun process. Watching them grow and learn to care for one another. That’s the part I really, really enjoy.”