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Friedman: What’s Wrong With The Islanders And Can They Be Fixed?

Going Into Training Camp, The Islanders Appeared To Have A Decent Blue Line
(Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)

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By Daniel Friedman
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Having dropped eight of their last ten games, the New York Islanders are officially in trouble.

Their most recent defeat was last night in Philadelphia, a 5-2 loss to the surging Flyers, who are now 32-4-2 against them since 2007-08.

“City of Brotherly Love?” Try telling that to the Isles, who have about as many wins there over the last several years as Eric Boulton has goals in his career. Given that Boulton scored against Philly, that might even be an unfair comparison.

As has been the case in just about every contest they’ve lost thus far, the Isles’ defense was nonexistent versus the Flyers. This is not your typical “bad” defense. This is far worse. I’m talking about a complete system-wide malfunction, all across the board. Nobody’s innocent here.

While there’s no question that an offseason move to bolster that Islander defense could’ve helped, I think it’s fair to say that nobody expected them to be this dreadful, this porous. I know I didn’t. I thought they’d at least be enough to get by for the time being, and then some.

Going into training camp, the Islanders appeared to have some real solid depth on their blue line. Travis Hamonic had just signed a contract extension, which he earned by morphing into one of the best young shutdown rearguards in the league.

Andrew MacDonald had generally been steady, would block shots and could be utilized in just about any situation. Up next was Lubomir Visnovsky, a puck-mover who showed that he could still run a power play with efficiency. At age-37, Visnovsky still skates well and is New York’s best defenseman in transition. In fact, it’s not even close.

So far, so good.

Or, at the very least, not remotely as bad as it turned out to be.

Brian Strait was coming off a pretty strong season, though he’d been injured and hadn’t played at the same level since that point. Still, it was reasonable to suggest that he’d return to his original form after having the summer to recover. I still think he’ll be an asset once he’s back and 100-percent healthy again.

Thomas Hickey showed he could make smart decisions with the puck. He made some poor ones too, but those were rookie mistakes that are eliminated as a player becomes more experienced and “with it,” so-to-speak.

A pair of blue-chippers in Matt Donovan and Griffin Reinhart were competing for that final spot on defense.

By all accounts, Donovan appeared ready to take that next step and be a big piece to the puzzle. Reinhart wasn’t quite there yet but was awfully close and, either way, the fact that he ultimately didn’t play for the Islanders this year spoke volumes about their improved defensive-depth. And there certainly weren’t any issues with having Matt Carkner as a seventh defenseman playing in a limited role.
I think that’s a pretty accurate representation of the consensus viewpoint during training camp. However, that was in August. Since then, everything has gone south.

Visnovsky was shelved with a concussion, Strait with an upper body injury. MacDonald, who’s in a contract year and should therefore be playing even better than in years prior, has underachieved.

Donovan has done some very good things and has undoubtedly shown flashes of core-potential, but he has not quite lived up to expectations just yet. That’s partly because he’s being asked to do a lot more than a player in his situation should be, but there are also things he can do to improve.

All things considered, Donovan’s been solid, but I think he can be a little better — even with the rookie mistakes he’ll inevitably make this season. Again, those are eliminated over time.

In retrospect, it’s easy to blame Garth Snow and say he needed to sign or trade for a defenseman this past summer. It would’ve helped, I think it would’ve made a difference, but it wasn’t “needed” at the time, per se.

Now, things are different.

Now, the Isles are reeling in their own zone and he does “need” to make a move. Especially since Thomas Hickey left last night’s game with what’s being described as a “lower body injury.” He’ll be evaluated today and we’ll know just how much time he’ll miss, should that be the case.

Snow is a patient man and he doesn’t like to make rash moves. That can be a very good trait, because we’ve seen GMs who lack it make horrendous decisions. If the Hickey injury is what drives him to realize he has no choice, then so be it. He’s not going to sit around and be content for much longer, contrary to popular belief.

The Islanders find themselves in an odd predicament because, though they’ve been abysmal of late, they’re still just five points out of a playoff spot. Two wins and an overtime or shootout loss are all that separates them from a tie with the New York Rangers for third place in the Metropolitan Division.

It’s also worth noting that the Isles were more-or-less in a similar predicament at this point last season. They had 12 regulation losses instead of 13, two overtime or shootout losses instead of three and two more wins (ten instead of eight). They had 22 points, just three more than they have right now.

And the kicker? Last year’s squad had just 24 games left to turn things around and less time in between games to do so because of the abbreviated schedule, while the 2013-14 Islanders have 58.

While there’s every reason to assert that the sky is falling, there is also somewhat of a rationale to say that, while the team isn’t where it needs to be, it’s also not particularly far away when you consider the circumstances.

That said, I think going out and acquiring a blueliner who can provide some stability here is an absolute necessity.

This Islander defense has hung its goaltenders out to dry all too often. At this rate, it won’t matter whether the Islanders have Kevin Poulin or Ken Dryden between the pipes; they’re going to lose and lose badly.

People are quick to bring up Poulin’s unimpressive numbers and I get that. No one is saying he’s been the second-coming of Patrick Roy, but if you think he hasn’t given his team a chance to win every single night, you’re not watching close enough. To point your finger across the river at Henrik Lundqvist and then hold it against Poulin for not being like him is simply ludicrous.

There are very few goalies in this league who can steal two points the way Lundqvist did the other night in Dallas. Very few.

I think Poulin has been good in his last several starts. With a solid defense in front of him, he’d be one of the biggest stories in the NHL right now. I think he’s only getting better and needs to keep playing. With Evgeni Nabokov injured, Poulin’s getting his shot and is taking advantage of the opportunity.

On the offensive front, things have been somewhat positive. John Tavares is tied for second in the league in points with 27, while Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen are in the top-30 with 22 points each. Thomas Vanek has three points in the two contests he’s played since returning from his injury.

Casey Cizikas has points in five-consecutive games and has been a powder keg at a time of need. He’s quickly establishing himself as the heart and soul of this Islander team.

Secondary scoring has been somewhat of an issue of late, but the Isles have gotten enough contributions from their forwards to offset that. Josh Bailey is starting to get his looks and I think it’s just a matter of time before he busts loose again.

Michael Grabner has always been a streaky player and that’s just the way he is. He’ll get his points, but not necessarily in a linear fashion. Both players have warranted a benching and Grabner has already received one, but I’d be stunned if they went much longer without producing.

Special teams has been a disaster but there are two simple explanations for that. Their penalty-killing woes are directly related to their defensive inadequacies and their power play lacks direction without Lubomir Visnovsky at the helm. They’ll be fine on the man-advantage once No. 11 returns.

Lastly, there’s been a lot of chatter about the coaching staff recently and it’s a topic of interest. Whenever a team struggles, fans tend to focus on those behind the bench and this is no exception.

I’m not sure that we know enough to say that Jack Capuano absolutely needs to be fired, but I’m also not sure it wouldn’t be the right move.

To me, it’s not a question of whether or not he’s a bad coach. I don’t think he is. He’s done a lot of good things with this team and has helped a lot of the younger players, in terms of their development.

Capuano was the right coach to shepherd the team and guide them through the rebuild, but it’s an entirely different ballgame now. The Islanders are expected to win, and both the management and coaching staff have expressed numerous times that they have set the bar higher.

Truthfully, I see both sides of the coin. On the one hand, Capuano’s been dealt a brutal hand; his defense is about as deep as the local duck pond and his lineup has been hit hard by injuries. Scotty Bowman wouldn’t win with this hockey team in its current state. Plus, the guys in that locker room have respect and enjoy playing for him.

On the other hand, his situation-management has been questionable at times.

Capuano made Matt Donovan a healthy scratch against the Carolina Hurricanes earlier in the season, in a game where the Isles could’ve used a little offense from their blueline and some more mobility back there.

Until recently, Capuano was scratching Brock Nelson every other night and even playing him on the fourth line in some of those games. His constant line-juggling prevents forwards on the second and third trios from building chemistry, even though there have been instances where those actions were justified — in his defense.

I think he could’ve called a timeout in the third period during the game against the LA Kings, in which the Islanders blew a 2-0 lead and lost. I think there were quite a few scenarios in which he should have called a timeout and settle his players down but, instead, he just let the ship sink.

For me, it’s not about wins and losses or whether it’s his fault the Islanders are losing. The standings only tell part of the story and there are several reasons for the team’s struggles that are beyond his control.

Jack Capuano needs to make certain adjustments. Much like his players, he’s still learning what it means to be successful at the NHL level. That having been said, Snow has fired coaches before and I fully believe he’ll do it again. Whether or not Capuano can navigate the terrain smartly could very well determine his future, as it should.

He’s already a solid coach, but he needs to become a better one. If you look at the teams that are successful, virtually all of them have strong coaches. If Capuano can make that leap, fantastic. If he can’t, then the Islanders can do better. I’m not even going to begin to speculate as to who would replace him because we really don’t know with absolute certainty who that would be.

I hope Capuano proves himself, because he is genuinely a good person who is well-liked by his players and those within the organization. I also think there are aspects of his coaching style that can be effective.

Time will tell.

Five points out of a playoff spot with 58 games left on the docket is not a horrible place to be right now, but if the New York Islanders are indeed serious about turning the corner and winning, there’s lots of work to be done.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN