By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
The look on John Tavares’ face on the bench as Monday night’s game ended told you everything you needed to know about the Islanders’ current state of affairs.
There he was, the normally never too high or too low star of what’s supposed to be an up-and-coming team looking as if someone just stole his lunch money.
Don’t be fooled, though. Tavares and his teammates aren’t being bullied by anyone. They are kicking themselves around the schoolyard and locking themselves in lockers.
What started as a season of promise has morphed into one of utter frustration. The Isles are at the quarter pole of their season and they find themselves in familiar territory, looking up at nearly everyone else in the Eastern Conference.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, not after a 4-2-1 start had them tied with New Jersey for first place in the Atlantic Division not even nine full days ago. Five straight losses later and the Isles are 10 points behind the conference-leading Devils, in 14th place.
People often speak of what can happen in a New York minute. Well, this is yet another bitter reminder of what often happens in a Long Island minute.
For the bottom to drop out like this during a normal 82-game schedule would be one thing, because five consecutive losses is generally not considered a death sentence, but to fall off the face of the Earth as they have in a condensed 48-game season is something else entirely.
The Islanders have been no strangers to stringing together losses that have ultimately destroyed a season before it has actually begun. In 2009-10, they lost 15 of their first 18 games, before rallying to finish with a rather respectable 79 points. In 2010-11 they lost 14 straight from October into November, a demise that cost then-coach Scott Gordon his job. In 2011-12 they lost 14 of 16, again from October into November, before playing much better hockey in the second half.
But the consistently better play during second halves of seasons really hasn’t mattered. The Islanders have still repeatedly finished in last place in the Atlantic and have still found themselves in the draft lottery.
So fast forward to the start of this season, one that was supposedly going to show that the rebuild actually worked and that this team wouldn’t go into extended tailspins, ruining any chance they were to have to finally get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
Well, they are indeed ruining any chance they have because when a team loses five straight in a shortened season, it might as well be 10. Every loss is compounded, and when you throw in the fact that the Islanders are playing nothing but divisional and conference foes, the defeats are compounded further. Missing out on two points, in many instances, is actually doing a lot more damage because the teams they are losing to are directly competing for those coveted eight spots.
The excuses given for the Islanders’ past demises revolved around youth and inexperience and that reasoning was generally accepted by both fans and the media watching the day-to-day development of all involved.
But the Islanders now find themselves in the fifth year of drafting high and buying low, the latter of which being basically forced upon them due to owner Charles Wang’s reported $250 million-plus in losses due to the franchise’s horrendous arena situation. While no one can predict the timetable for when kids will become men playing a man’s game, five years should be long enough to at least make a team somewhat relevant.
The Islanders, despite their improvements in some areas, are still not relevant, and their current five-game losing streak speaks volumes as to why.
This may be the worst 5-on-5 team in the entire NHL. Despite having Tavares, who, to be fair, has been exceptional, perennial 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson, explosive Michael Grabner, extremely offensive-minded defenseman Mark Streit, and a few others, the Isles have scored just 22 even-strength goals in 12 games. That’s an absolutely terrifying statistic. They do not have a player in the black in the plus-minus category. Again, horrifying.
The Isles do have the league’s No. 4-ranked power-play unit, which is a positive, but it’s nowhere near enough by itself on a nightly basis to put this team in position to win games consistently. The Isles have 13 power-play goals, but four of them came in Monday night’s 6-4 loss to Carolina on home ice. Prior to that game they had gone without a goal in 22 consecutive man-advantage opportunities and, coincidentally, lost all four games they spanned.
Because this team doesn’t score at even strength it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on its special teams, and it is unfair to ask the power-play and penalty-killing unit, which is currently No. 3 in the NHL at 89.5 percent, to continue to put up these kinds of PlayStation-like numbers.
The Islanders certainly get their chances. As opposed to previous seasons, what’s happened so far in this shortened season has not been a case of teams steamrolling them from the second the puck has been dropped to start any one game. During their current losing streak the Isles have actually outshot their opponents 159-125, including an absurd 43-15 edge in a 3-2 loss to visiting Buffalo on Saturday. What’s happened has also not been a case of every opposing goalie having a career night.
They just don’t finish, and this is with Tavares and Moulson having 15 and 13 points, respectively, in a dozen games, and newcomer Lubomir Visnovsky doing exactly what he was brought here to do in the two games he’s played.
Defensively, this team has actually been better than it’s patch-work pairings would suggest, though I would prefer they stop using their sticks in front of the net and start blowing guys up with the body. But that aside, the Islanders have allowed the second-most goals in the NHL, but 43 in 12 games looks a lot worse when your goaltending has been basically nonexistent. And that shouldn’t be the case considering Evgeni Nabokov’s track record. Nabokov has an .897 save percentage in 10 starts. Rick DiPietro, he of the “Survivor: Uniondale” look these days, is a shell of the player he was in college, let alone the limited number of professional games he’s actually played in over the last five seasons due to an assortment of well-documented injuries.
Meanwhile, the Islanders traded for two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas last week, knowing full well he’ll likely never play a game for them and that the move was strictly done to get them to the cap floor. Let’s just ignore the fact that even as he sits out this season in a beer-stained undershirt and probably nowhere near game shape, Thomas is infinitely better than either of the options currently on the big club.
The Isles’ slide started with losses to New Jersey and Pittsburgh, teams they had beaten previously, and then the Rangers. Now I’m not going to sit here and try to make a case that the Islanders are better than any of those teams, because they aren’t, but they often looked listless and non-competitive during stretches of all three games, and that should be unacceptable considering this is now several seasons of largely the same players playing together. The losses to Buffalo and Carolina were simply inexcusable when you look at how much of each game the Islanders played in the offensive end.
People should be worried for their jobs right now. Now some would say if Wang is quietly turning up the heat on all involved he’s a big-time hypocrite because the Islanders are millions upon millions of dollars under the cap, but, right or wrong, his financial issues are likely not going to impact his mindset. The way he probably sees it is these players have a job to do. If they don’t do it, regardless of the lack of money spent to construct the roster, they should still be held accountable because there is talent on this team. This is not an expansion team or one filled with nothing but kids one year removed from college or juniors.
Jack Capuano has to be fearing for his head coaching life right now. He just doesn’t have the time or the luxury of waiting for things to work themselves out. If the Islanders don’t turn this thing around and get north of .500 soon he’s likely going to get fired, because, again, the mindset in the front office and owner’s box is different than the reality the fans see. Wang and general manager Garth Snow expect results, and, frankly, I agree that there’s no question the Islanders should be better than they are.
But there’s not going to be an easy game the rest of the way. Just look at the Isles’ next three — at the Rangers and then home for New Jersey and Philadelphia. They then head out on a three-game trip to Ottawa, Montreal and Buffalo.
Sooner or later they have to turn this around or the season will be for all intents and purposes over before we hit St. Patrick’s Day.
And if that’s the case, the beer and the tears will flow aplenty on Long Island, as usual.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
Do you see any chance of the Islanders turning this around and making the playoffs? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below …