By Jeff Capellini
Whatever your expectations were coming into this season, it’s time to put them on hold. The Islanders are beginning to look like the team of Novembers’ past.
The penultimate month of the calendar year has been none too kind to New York over the last several seasons that there has actually been hockey in November. Why? Initially it was because the Islanders simply weren’t very good.
But that wasn’t supposed to be the case this season, one that has featured a 6-9-3 start aided by a current four-game losing streak.
Since the start of the 2010-11 season, the Islanders are an amazingly bad 7-18-5 in November, including several longer losing streaks that went a long way toward making sure this team didn’t make the playoffs and costing some people their jobs. Put more simply, outside of the bizarre world that is the NHL, where losing teams can actually gain in the standings as long as they promise to play at most five extra minutes a night, the Islanders have lost 23 of their last 30 games in November.
Last season, which featured no hockey until January due to the lockout, February acted as the Islanders’ November. They went 4-9-1, clearly struggling to adapt to the condensed schedule of daily battles against conference foes. But what set that swoon apart from all the others was the fact the Isles finally grew up and figured things out. They made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and pretty much convinced the hockey world that the nonsense from the previous two decades was finally over.
But something has clearly been wrong so far this season. And while it is still way too early to go jumping off ledges, the Islanders have been behind the 8-ball in many areas. With the new playoff format being what it is, this team is going to have to fight to make sure it finishes at least third in the newly constructed Metropolitan Division. Considering the expectations, which have been tempered somewhat due to offseason failures and in-season injuries coupled with uninspired play, something needs to change and it needs to change quickly if the Isles are to avoid all-out regression in the wake of last season’s revelation of promise.
LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING — THE OFFSEASON
Following the six-game ouster by Pittsburgh in the first round of last season’s playoffs, it was readily apparent that the Islanders were lacking in three areas — goaltender, top-pairing defense and top line wing. A lot of people, including myself, screamed repeatedly that unless general manager Garth Snow addressed those issues the Isles would be left counting on younger players continuing their maturation process in the hope that they put it in warp drive to take this team to the next level. It was a big gamble because there was to be nothing about the Isles going forward that would surprise teams. They had established themselves as legitimate players in the East. They would be the hunted just as much as they fancied themselves as the hunters.
The problem with inactivity, or, in this case, less than significant activity, on the roster front with a team like this is the bar had been raised dramatically by the effort during last season’s second half and the gritty determination this team showed in the playoffs. It was time to stop relying on what could be and start putting some resources into getting what is — as in some veterans in the aforementioned areas of need.
The Isles really didn’t do that.
The goaltender issue, to me at least anyway, was the biggest mistake Snow made. And while we may never know the real reason why he chose to continue his faith in Evgeni Nabokov, who was coming off being exploited in the playoffs, all signs pointed to a refusal to trade younger assets for help. It’s likely the reason why the Isles were mostly observers in the Jonathan Bernier sweepstakes and why no other goalie was acquired via trade.
For those keeping score at home, Nabokov, who was signed to a one-year contract for a little more than $3 million the second free agency started, currently has a 3.24 goals-agaist average and .894 save percentage, stats that should scare the heck out of everyone, considering he was penciled in as the No. 1 goalie on a team expected to get past the first round of the playoffs this season.
Now, have some of Nabokov’s struggles been directly tied to the defense being injured and sorely lacking even when healthy? Of course. But the fact remains that the 38-year-old no longer has what it takes to steal games and certainly can’t make up for his team’s issues in front of him with any consistency.
The only reason why the Isles’ goaltending situation is not an unmitigated disaster at this point is because Kevin Poulin has played well, posting a 2.62 GAA and .908 save percentage in five starts. And, to absolutely no one’s surprise, the Isles have played a lot better defensively at even strength with Poulin in net. It’s as if they just feel more comfortable with a great unknown in goal than they do a once-proven entity.
The Isles did not get a defenseman of any kind to help their top six. And to this moment each of the blueliners they have is playing one to two spots higher in the rotation than they should. Throw in crippling injuries to Lubomir Visnovsky and Brian Strait and now the Isles have been forced to play Matt Carkner full time, re-sign Radek Martinek, who has little to nothing left, and operate a revolving door between Uniondale and Bridgeport. What’s more, Travis Hamonic took a shot to the head on Sunday night that left everyone holding their breath, so there’s that to worry about going forward as well.
The result of all that has been a defense that has allowed the third-most goals in the NHL, low-lighted by a penalty killing unit that is ranked last in the NHL.
As far as top line scoring goes, Pierre-Marc Bouchard is a nice player but he wasn’t the guy to play with John Tavares, as evidenced by the fact that he’s still not playing on a line with Tavares and likely would not have even if Snow had not traded for Thomas Vanek, but more on Vanek in a bit.
Up until their current slide the Isles could hang their helmets on their offense. Despite managing just six goals on their recently completed four-game road trip, the Isles still have one of the more potent offenses in the East. But something is missing 5-on-5 and the power play went 0-for-24 before scoring twice during the 4-2 loss in Montreal on Sunday night.
THE TRADES THEY DID MAKE
This is where the fans have to relax a little bit. A lot of people want to blame the Isles’ problems on the trade of Matt Moulson for Vanek and that’s just patently absurd, mostly because of the goaltending and defense issues I just explained in great detail.
No one is saying Moulson wasn’t beloved by the fans and vital to the chemistry on offense, specifically the power play, but to judge Vanek, a world class talent that Moulson is not, on the six games he’s played as an Islander is just ridiculous. The upper body injury he suffered Saturday night in Columbus could prove ultra-costly if he’s deemed out for a significant period of time.
Of course, fans see Moulson getting off to a good start in Buffalo and they cry front office ineptitude. Again, that’s just emotion and frustration of a current tailspin talking. If it’s not, you can’t help those people and you’re better off ignoring them.
The only way the Vanek trade is a failure is if he walks at the end of the season. Sources have told me that contrary to popular belief this notion that he’s already signed, sealed and delivered to Minnesota doesn’t have a modicum of truth at this point.
As for Cal Clutterbuck, the deal that brought him here was one of the better ones Snow had made considering the circumstances. Of course, fans see that Nino Niederreiter has 10 points in 18 games with the Wild, while Clutterbuck had a goal and an assist before getting injured, and they lose their minds. Again, take the emotion out of it if you can. The fact remains Niederreiter wore out his welcome here and basically forced a trade. To get a player of Clutterbuck’s grit and mastery of the intangibles in a deal for a straight up problem was a deft move by this GM.
And you can in no way judge Clutterbuck the player after just 10 games in a new system.
THE UNDERWHELMING ISLES
If you want to point a finger at some real reasons why the Islanders are struggling beyond what’s in net and their general issues on defense, look at three veterans who have no excuses for being as bad as they have been.
Culprit No. 1: Michael Grabner. All he’s done is go goal-less for 15 games, not counting the two he was suspended for, highlighted by a maddening ability to fail on more breakaways and odd-man rushes than seemingly any player on the planet. Some fans defend him as this incredibly skilled guy who does so much for the Isles, like kill penalties and play very well on both ends of the ice, but when you have his individual skills and speed and your defense team-wise is a disaster both at even strength and on the penalty kill, who really cares about his so-called intangibles? The delay of game penalty he took Sunday night with no one around him spoke volumes about where his head is at right now. If ever there is someone who needs to go, it’s Grabner.
Culprit No. 2: Andrew MacDonald. He’s given the puck away more times in his own end than any Isles fan would care to admit. He has excellent stick skills and speed that allows him to get into dangerous areas on the rush, but has just one goal. He is clearly someone who has been given too much responsibility due to the Isles’ plethora of injuries to their back end, and when they get some people back should have his minutes cut back a bit. Right now, the only thing valuable about MacDonald is his bargain-basement contract.
Culprit No. 3: Josh Bailey. He got the big contract extension he wanted but has yet to produce adequately to justify it, which is extremely frustrating considering he may be one of the most talented players the Islanders have. He deserves more time to prove his worth, just like Vanek and Clutterbuck, but he should be even more closely watched because he’s already invested in for years.
Snow’s trade for Vanek reiterated the urgency this franchise has to take things to the next level, which leads me to believe he won’t sit around for too long before doing something.
But that said, the issues on defense will remain for a while because Visnovsky (concussion) and Strait (upper body) haven’t even begun skating yet. Barring a trade, which will test Snow because the defenseman market is not yet well defined, the Isles have to keep working combinations until something clicks.
As for goaltender, Poulin has to play a lot more, period. There have been many instances in the past of rookie goalies emerging on the scene and carrying teams for long stretches. The time is now to find out if Poulin is that guy, or else Snow will have no choice but to acquire a veteran, because Nabokov’s decline is more obvious now than it was in July.
Up front, if Vanek is out an extended period of time, which could be the case, sooner or later the Isles have to turn to Ryan Strome down at Bridgeport, who has 16 points in 10 games.
The bottom line with this team is sitting around and waiting while thinking positive thoughts is likely not going to get it done. The Islanders are hurting all over the place and a proactive approach to correcting the problems needs to be undertaken immediately.
It’s that or replacing Jack Capuano, a coach who is trying everything in his power with what he has to get something going. But he can only do so much. While there are a lot of people who question Capuano’s coaching decisions, he has, in my opinion, been dealt a pretty crappy hand at this point. If all the players that are hurt return and the team still struggles, okay, maybe’s he’s got to go, but the Isles simply are not good enough at this point even at full strength to be anything more than a team fighting for the seventh or eighth spot in the conference.
That, considering all we know and have been told, is not good enough.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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