By B.D. Gallof, WFAN.com
At the beginning of this season, I predicted the Islanders would finish on the outside looking in at the playoffs, somewhere between 10th to 12th place in the Eastern Conference, mostly because the franchise, despite arena certainty in the coming years, was to remain in cost-cutting mode, forsaking true free agency.
Owner Charles Wang wasn’t and isn’t about to lose more money when the move won’t officially happen until the summer of 2015.
So with glaring flaws, a push to make young players earn their spots, and with an incomplete defense, the Isles went forward, warts and all.
I think the fans need to understand the following element more succinctly: General manager Garth Snow operates based on a budget, not on the whims of supporters who refuse to accept that fact. Would he have wanted to keep P.A. Parenteau over signing Brad Boyes? Would he have liked to tinker some more with the offense and get some more serious talent on defense?
We’ll never truly know because the reality of the world Snow has been forced to operate in is a very real reality due to the fact that the Islanders still lose tons of money. Wang is still against the idea of losing more. As I have said, this could change as soon as this coming summer, but as far as this season goes, it’s par for the course of the last several seasons.
Parenteau’s case was a bit more dramatic than simply giving him a fair raise. He wanted to be paid more than Matt Moulson, the same player who has 25 points in 23 games this season and would be well on pace to shatter his previous career high for production over a full 82-game season.
One can understand Snow’s need to keep the team’s pay structure intact and try to avoid throwing things out of reality-based balance. However, it still makes one wonder how much better the Isles would be had he had more free reign to spend.
But before you assume the Islanders would be a lot better, just know that Snow in fact did replace Parenteau. Boyes has done a very good job, with 18 points (Parenteau has 19 with Colorado). This team’s problem now offensively is the same as it was last season with Parenteau, developing consistent scoring beyond the top line.
Even when playing well this season there have been legitimate concerns about 5-on-5 production. The Isles’ special teams magic has not buoyed the team enough. Despite a power play that is among the best in the NHL and a penalty killing unit that is often fairly stout, scoring and defending at even strength has remained a serious issue.
So let’s look at the whole picture in terms of progress. The offense, actually, has been better overall than it was last season, but the fact remains: When John Tavares, a player that would be on pace for 90-plus points over a full season, is shut down, so, too, is Moulson. And when these events go hand in hand, the Isles struggle and invariably lose because they lack consistency from the other three lines.
As scouts from other teams have discovered, the key to defeating the Islanders is shutting down their best player. What makes Tavares so dangerous is not just his scoring, but also his underrated passing. He makes great passes, even under heaping loads of pressure. He also is difficult to knock off the puck. His speed with the puck actually increases, and he makes good decisions on the ice at all times, regardless of the physical pressure thrown his way.
So, what about everyone else you ask? Well, you cannot speed up youth. So sources have told me talents like Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Strome will be left to grow and develop correctly in the minors and juniors. You also can’t manufacture trades, especially when trying to deal from positions of weakness. This is why silly deals pushed by fans involving Josh Bailey or Kyle Okposo are so pointless.
Instead, rewarding or punishing a player with playing time is the key tool to light fires and hold people accountable. For all the complaining about Okposo, when he has been threatened we have seen signs of life and consistent play.
Maybe that dreaded word “patience” is indeed the order of the day and the season, because when the Islanders show a lot you get results like the last two games of this current seven-game home stand, and you ultimately see the Isles playing like many think they are capable.
Realistically, this team is right where it is supposed to be, considering the talent, experience and coaching.
Through 24 games, or officially half the shortened season, the Islanders needed to be at around 27 points to be on a realistic playoff pace. At 23 games and with only 22 points, as is the case now, they have some catching up to do, but remain relevant due to other teams, specifically the Rangers and Flyers, going through lulls.
And just because the Islanders are just a few points out of the eighth spot, looks can be deceiving because teams battling for the same coveted eight spots have games in hand. The Rangers have two in hand, as does Winnipeg, which is just behind the Isles.
The homestand presented itself as an opportunity to gain some traction, but that has not happened. However, beating Ottawa on Sunday and then East-leading Montreal on Tuesday were steps in the right direction.The Islanders still have to play the Rangers on Thursday and the Capitals on Saturday at the Nassau Coliseum before they head out on the road again. If they can win those two, well, things will look decidedly different yet again.
But it’s important to note that what you see from the Islanders is possibly what you are going to continue to get. Are they capable of putting a winning streak together? Maybe, but their calling card has been consistent inconsistency. They are fourth in the East in goals scored, but next to last in the NHL in goals allowed. Though their special teams have remained solid, their defense still disappears from time to time and their goaltending is on again, off again.
The deadline is now less than a month away, April 3. In speaking to both NHL and Islanders sources, this might be a very active trade period due to several big money teams struggling. Remember, the salary cap ceiling will drop next season. That means big money players might have to be dealt for less value due to cap needs and breathing room.
As far as the Islanders tradable assets go, as I have said on Twitter numerous times, if they are to deal a forward it will likely be Michael Grabner, who, despite his dangerous speed and wonderful transition game, really as an all-around forward is no better than a third liner. Inconsistent production and a failure to play a full three periods remain his biggest shortcomings.
Another movable option could be Frans Nielsen.
Despite online fan outrage over the very notion of trading Grabner or Nielsen, if both are always banished to the third line, with players like Sundstrom, Persson, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Strome, Niederreiter, and perhaps Kabanov seemingly ready to make the jump to the NHL, where do these vets fit in down the line? It is something that needs to be asked, and it is certainly being asked by the Isles’ brain trust, which would love to package some of these coveted forwards with some picks or prospects to gain a key talent.
On defense, do not expect Lubomir Visnovsky, who is still not happy to be on Long Island, dealt for anything less than a first-round pick. His play has been very good, and anything less than a first rounder will not be accepted because the Islanders are still in reaching distance of a playoff spot. He’s been as advertised on the ice and could be a great commodity for those teams needing some defensive scoring/assists come the deadline.
But only at the value Snow could set.
As we have seen at subsequent trade deadlines, either teams meet Snow’s price or no deal gets done. That is not a bad thing, considering some GMs, due to the financial issues I illustrated earlier, might get antsy.
We might see Anders Lee signed and playing on Long Island if the Islanders can entice him with playing time opportunity this very season. Here is a guy with top 2 line potential.
Meanwhile, waiver wunderkinds like Keith Aucoin have fallen to Earth. Aucoin has shown to be more of a fourth line quality. Defensemen Thomas Hickey and Joe Finley have been a mixed bag compared to the consistency and ability of currently injured Brian Strait. However, they have been getting better. Meanwhile, Radek Martinek is starting to heat up and show he can be counted on in a pinch, which was why the Isles signed him in the first place.
The real question going forward is which of the cap-heavy teams blink first before the ceiling drops next season? Could a team like the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, San Jose Sharks, or even the Flyers start to panic?
If things shake out like I figure, cap relief will become a desire and talent will start changing hands as the wheeling and dealing ramps up. One looks at the Tim Thomas bookkeeping deal and has to wonder if the Islanders anticipate a possible major deal with the assurance of remaining above the cap. Or, was that trade made in case they fall into the non-playoff abyss? It all remains to be seen, but the Islanders are actually in a good position with Thomas. They could move him for a second-round pick or keep him should Evgeni Nabokov move on and they don’t view Kevin Poulin as NHL ready.
What about Rick DiPietro you may be asking? Well, he’s getting shelled in the AHL with a .798 save percentage and a 6.00 goals-against average, so it’s fair to say we may never see him again. Of course, if he gets his save percentage closer to .900 and proves he can stay healthy there’s always the possibility of him returning, but the odds are definitely against him.
For those eternal pessimist and optimists, I leave you with this:
When Thursday’s game against the Rangers is over, the Islanders will be at the half-way point of their season. The pace they are currently on will likely not be good enough to get into the playoffs. Some things will have to change, but with trades and the like probably not being the order of the day to help make the change happen. If they can just find some kind of positive consistency, they could very well be in the hunt until the end.
But the Islanders right now are who they are. They are improved over last season, albeit slightly, but unless they find something to bring it all together and reach the maximum potential of what this group can be, this season is likely going to end like the five previous — with this team watching the playoffs after having taken yet another baby step.
Read more columns by B.D. Gallof and follow him on Twitter at @BDGallof
Do you think the Islanders can sneak into the playoffs or is the rest of this season just more time to evaluate the future? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below …