By Daniel Friedman
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“When you play the right way for 57 minutes and you don’t get the result, it’s frustrating, especially the way that happened tonight.”
Those were the words of New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo, who was attempting to explain how the Tampa Bay Lightning escaped Nassau Coliseum with a shootout win on Tuesday night. After all, the Isles had a 2-0 lead over the Bolts with about three minutes remaining in the hockey game.
If those words don’t properly accentuate this team’s performance over the last several weeks, none will. During that span, the Islanders have proven that there’s an enormous difference between making mistakes and failing to rectify those mistakes.
The last time the Isles played a full 60 minutes of mistake-free hockey was nearly seven weeks ago, on November 2, when they defeated the Boston Bruins by a 3-1 margin.
Since that point, it’s been mostly downhill.
A brutal Western swing all but buried the Islanders’ postseason aspirations. The only thing still keeping them in the hunt is the fact that the Metropolitan Division is astoundingly horrendous.
It’s true — despite all that’s gone wrong, they’re five wins and an overtime or shootout loss out of a playoff spot. But that certainly doesn’t excuse their poor efforts of late, nor does it excuse the inaction shown by team management during that stretch.
Garth Snow has made some very good decisions during his tenure as GM of the Islanders. I’ve defended him for quite some time and definitely wouldn’t entertain the idea of calling for his head now. That said, I cannot defend his response (or lack thereof) to his hockey club’s fall from grace.
How many games must a team lose before something, anything, is done to try to right the ship? How many times must a team blow a third-period lead? How many costly defensive breakdowns must occur?
The fact is, these players and coaches have been paraded out there virtually every night just to wind up on the wrong side of the scoreboard. At what point does something give? We know that it shouldn’t be happening, that a lot of these players should be capable of turning things around. But the bottom line is, they simply have not done so.
You might not like their methods, but this organization is in fact committed to winning. Charles Wang doesn’t like losing and neither does Snow. That must be made clear. Still, it’s downright puzzling that they’ve exhibited this much patience, given recent developments.
It’s even more puzzling when you consider that the Thomas Vanek trade came into fruition because Snow “didn’t like the way we’d been playing.” The Isles were 4-4-3 at the time.
I think it’s fair to say many people expected head coach Jack Capuano to be fired by the time the Islanders returned home from California, yet he’s still behind the bench. That’s not to suggest it’s Capuano’s fault the Isles are losing games, but he definitely hasn’t been helping with his suspect lineup decisions, poor in-game management and lack of accountability.
As I’ve said before, I think Capuano was the right man to help this team grow into itself during the rebuild, but I don’t see him as the coach who takes them to that next level.
He’s pushed too many of the wrong buttons and, as far as I’m concerned, the way in which he handled Brock Nelson should have been the final straw. There is no plausible explanation for his decision to put Nelson on the fourth line, then sit him out for a whole bunch of games after he’d played well in Vanek’s absence.
The players enjoy having Capuano behind the bench; he’s certainly a player’s coach. But these Islanders don’t need someone who’s going to hold their hand anymore. They need a taskmaster, someone who’ll be hard on them and hold them accountable for their mistakes. That’s a major component of how you end a rebuild and become a legitimate hockey team.
I don’t care who’s in the lineup. A team that does not have a sense of accountability — from the coaches and even the players themselves — will never amount to anything. Whether it’s by hiring Peter Laviolette, Doug Weight or Bugs Bunny, it is time for a change of direction at the head-coaching position.
The coaches can only do so much, however. Ultimately, it does come down to the guys on the ice.
Honestly, this Isles’ defense corps is simply not getting the job done and will not cut it. A trade was needed about 10 games ago, but it never came. Unsurprisingly, the team is still losing hockey games.
Overpaying for a player isn’t something GMs like to do and Snow’s no exception to that. That said, beggars can’t be choosers. No one’s asking for P.K. Subban or Alex Pietrangelo, but there are very few defensemen who wouldn’t be an upgrade. It’s unfortunate that it’s come to that, but it really has. That’s how bad things have gotten.
There’s no reason to give up the kitchen sink, but even if Snow has to give up a bit more than he’d like, he needs to make a move. I understand he’s been plugging away and likely wants to wait for the perfect, sensible deal. That’s always been one of his strengths as a GM, but in this case it’s been a weakness; he’s doing so at the expense of the Isles’ playoff hopes.
It’s easy to suggest that we don’t know what’s out there and, in a lot of ways, that’s true. But that’s why GMs make phone calls and we’ve seen those kinds of trades made before by other teams.
Snow does deserve credit for bringing up Calvin de Haan and Ryan Strome, who’ve both made immediate impacts, albeit not on the score sheet. Aaron Ness, on the other hand, provided some stability when he was first called up, but has since unraveled. It’s clear he’s still very much a work in progress, and I think it’s in the Islanders’ best interest to return him to Bridgeport and give Matt Donovan another chance to stick with the big club.
Contrary to popular belief, the season isn’t over yet. If the Isles can pull to within five or six points of a playoff spot before the Sochi Games, I think they have a shot at this. If they can’t, then Aaron Ekblad and Sam Reinhart’s Wikipedia pages are going to see a lot more web traffic.
Last week, I made a joke about how Islanders prospect Adam Pelech is paired with Ekblad on defense for Team Canada at this year’s World Junior Championships. For now, that remains a joke. If things continue to go south, it might become a legitimate projection.
If the Islanders are going to climb back into this thing, it’s going to require a lot of soul-searching, a lot of deep digging and a lot of fortune reversal. That applies to everyone in the locker room and those in the front office. We know a lot of these players have within them the ability to be part of a playoff team; we’ve seen them do it.
From a personnel standpoint, this might be a similar squad to last year’s, but they haven’t remotely lived up to their potential, never mind the expectations or the hype.
Tampa Bay Lightning star forward Martin St. Louis said it best after his team’s morning skate on Tuesday: “The Islanders are much better than their record. For some reason, they are where they are, but this is not a team you can take lightly.”
Snow has had a knack of making impactful trades in the past. It’s in Snow’s best interest to make another one, sooner rather than later.
The clock hasn’t struck 12 on the Isles’ season just yet, but it will — unless something is done to get them going here. Otherwise, all that talk of “battle level” and “playing smaht and hahd” is just empty rhetoric.
We know the Islanders want to succeed, but they need to start winning games. That’s all that matters now.
Moral victories don’t get you points in the standings. Actual victories do.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI.
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