By Daniel Friedman
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Things just keep getting worse and worse for the New York Islanders.
Already saddled with injuries to Evgeni Nabokov, Lubomir Visnovsky and Brian Strait, the team has managed to turn an undesirable situation into an unmitigated disaster. The Isles have lost eight consecutive games and have shown little indication that their current streak of futility will end there.
They are having trouble all across the board. You name it; they’re struggling with it.
From special teams to secondary scoring, from defense to discipline – this team is simply not getting the job done right now. They’re reversing much (if not all) of the positive momentum they generated by making the playoffs and taking the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games last season.
Yet, in spite of recent developments, there has been a silver lining here. The 2013-14 Islanders appear to be in self-destruct mode but, per contra, their bright future is still very much intact.
At a time when virtually anything and everything is going wrong, a number of young players have stepped in and made real solid impressions. Of course, these kids have committed some errors and even some costly ones, but that’s to be expected. The more experience they get, the smarter they’ll be.
Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson went into training camp this summer vying for a backup goalie spot and, as expected, Poulin snagged it. Hoewever, Nabokov went down with an injury on Nov. 16, giving the Islanders a reason to call Nilsson up from Bridgeport of the AHL.
Back in early October, I’d mentioned that this season would pivotal for Poulin, in the sense that he’d either have to put up or shut up. A quick glance at his statistics (3-10-0, 3.24 goals-against average and .887 save percentage) suggests that he has not executed, but the reality is that, in this case, the numbers are very misleading.
Poulin’s been hung out to dry by his defense on a regular basis and has given the Isles a chance to win on most nights. Had he received a little more support, he could’ve been one of the biggest stories in the league right now. Instead, he’s sitting on the bench while his team continues to lose games, ground and heart.
I sincerely hope Poulin isn’t being pegged as a scapegoat here, because he doesn’t deserve to be. Neither did rookie defenseman Matt Donovan, but I’ll get to him in a bit.
Head coach Jack Capuano opted to go with Nilsson in each of the last three contests and the young Swede performed admirably in two of those games. Against Washington and Pittsburgh, Nilsson was steady but his defense was nonexistent.
Thursday night in St. Louis, on the other hand, was quite different. The Blues took advantage of the Islanders’ porous blue line, but they also scored a couple of goals that I’m sure Nilsson would like to have back.
The sample size on Nilsson is small, but what we do know right now is he can at least provide serviceable goaltending in a support role. Poulin’s been the better of the two and, ultimately, I think he has more potential as a future NHL starter. That having been said — between the two of them, the Islanders have a pair of netminders who’ve played well enough to give their team a fighting chance.
It’s absolutely ridiculous to ask or expect a 23-year-old goaltender to play at an elite level, just because the team is losing. Most of the better goalies in hockey today weren’t brick walls from the outset. These things take time and patience.
There are likely few who could have offset this team’s defensive issues. You’re looking at Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, Pekka Rinne and maybe Ryan Miller (though I’d argue he hasn’t helped Buffalo win much lately and he’s in a similar situation there).
Shifting over to the blue line, I think Donovan, Aaron Ness and Calvin de Haan have shown they can play.
Donovan was unjustifiably sent down to Bridgeport and, though he was far from the perfect defenseman, was making strides and doing some real good things. I don’t think it’s the worst thing for him to be in the minors right now but, at the same time, I don’t think he deserved to be sent there.
The talent is there and Donovan has the ability to produce in the NHL. He just needs to build up more confidence and if he can I have little doubt he’ll be back on Long Island this season.
Islanders’ GM Garth Snow traded up to draft de Haan 12th overall in 2009, and though he’s been plagued with injuries over the last few years, he’s made it quite clear that he has no intentions of being a bust. I really liked the way de Haan played in training camp and felt he had a legitimate shot of making the team.
Since entering the lineup on Nov. 30, de Haan’s been steady, reliable and poised. He’s looked calm and has made smart decisions with the puck. Granted, he made a terrible mistake Thursday night by leaving Blues’ forward Magnus Paajarvi all alone in front, but he has otherwise been real solid.
The same can be said for Ness, who has exceeded expectations and has even contributed offensively at times.
Defensemen take longer to develop and I think people tend to forget that sometimes. It’s hard to be patient when the defense as a whole is struggling, but when it comes to younger rearguards, you just have to roll with the punches.
It’s unreasonable to hold Donovan, de Haan or even Thomas Hickey to the same standard as Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald and Radek Martinek.
Speaking of unreasonable, I’d really like to hear a logical explanation as to why Brock Nelson’s been a healthy scratch for three straight games.
I wasn’t particularly keen on Nelson being an Islander at the beginning of the season, but since that time he has earned my respect. Nelson has played well and earned every right to play in the NHL. Unfortunately, his opportunities have been limited, because, other than when Thomas Vanek was injured, he’s either played on one of the bottom two lines or watched the game in a suit and tie.
Capuano has mishandled this situation to a mind-boggling degree. Either play Nelson or send the kid down. This isn’t fair to Nelson, that’s the bottom line.
Practicing with the big club is all fine and good, but if it’s not being combined with meaningful game experience, it doesn’t help much. The only real way to identify your strengths and weaknesses is by being thrust into real-time game situations. Additionally, Nelson’s been very solid while the Isles have lost their way. Why they wouldn’t put him in the lineup to see if he can provide some sort of spark makes zero sense whatsoever.
Lastly, it’s time to usher in the Ryan Strome era.
I’m not sure what the Islanders are waiting for here. Never mind the fact that Strome should’ve been on the opening night roster; he has certainly made his case over the 21 games he should never have had to play with Bridgeport. Strome leads all AHL rookies with 26 points and is tied for third amongst all players in that category.
Just in case that’s not enough, he was also named the league’s Rookie of the Month for November.
One of the concerns people have about Strome is that he hasn’t bulked up enough. That’s something younger players do over time and, in most cases, they’re unable to accomplish much at the NHL level until then.
But Strome isn’t like most young players; he’s incredibly skilled, and both his skating ability and hockey IQ are off the charts. He has other ways of creating space and offense, and is plenty capable of doing it with the big club.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there other NHL players in Strome’s height and weight classes who’ve been successful.
Strome clocks in at 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds, which is the same height and eight pounds heavier than Frans Nielsen (yes, that one). Ottawa’s Kyle Turris (on pace for 60 points) is 6-1 and just three pounds heavier than Strome, while Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon (on pace for 52) is an inch shorter and six pounds lighter.
Their lack of muscle hasn’t prevent them from putting up points in the NHL, so why should we automatically assume Strome wouldn’t be as productive?
Strome is shark trapped in a fishbowl right now. Let him out, give him the chance to bust loose in the NHL because he’s ready for it. What do the Islanders have to lose? More games? This team needs a spark from wherever they can get one. The fact is that Strome can help them, he really can.
If the Islanders are going to snap out of this funk, they must adopt an all-hands-on-deck mentality. I’ll say this, though, the kids have done their part.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN.
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