It's Never Easy Losing A Star, But This Young Team Is Cultivating More Of Them

By Daniel Friedman
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For all intents and purposes, the Islanders’ season was over before John Tavares’ was.

But when the team captain and superstar went down during the Olympics, the results were still expected to be fairly disastrous. No one thought the Isles would be remotely watchable, let alone competitive, without their best player and captain.

However, just the opposite has occurred. The Islanders have been, dare I say it, fun to watch. Even better, they’re enjoying a 7-2-1 run, while dressing nine or 10 rookies a night. It doesn’t seem to make much sense until you look at all the moving parts and intricacies.

Right after the Olympic break, I’d mentioned that the Islanders appeared to be embracing an all-hands-on-deck mentality, and that is precisely what we’re seeing.

The Tavares injury is forcing certain players into positions they otherwise wouldn’t be in and is therefore breeding secondary scoring. The Isles are getting production from all four lines and from both expected and unexpected sources.

“That’s the kind of effort we need,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said this week. “We’re trying to play hard at this point of the season and we are just trying to get better each and every day. All we can ask of each other is to just keep working.”

Frans Nielsen has had a banner season as the team’s second-line center, but minus Tavares, he’s had to become the top-line guy. He’s embraced the challenge, recording eight points in his last 10 games. Nielsen now has a career-high 52 points this season.

Perhaps even more important has been the emergence of Ryan Strome. The former No. 5 overall pick spent much of this season doing his best Wayne Gretzky impersonation at the AHL level. The Islanders eventually came to their senses and did what they should have done in October — they gave him a roster spot.

Strome has not disappointed and, like Nielsen, has eight points in his last 10 contests. The most telling sign that he’s on his way to becoming more has been his ability to elevate the play of those around him. His linemates, Colin McDonald and Matt Martin, each have six points in their last 10 games. If you think that’s merely a coincidence, you’re mistaken.

Martin said he likes what he’s seen of late.

“It’s been coming together pretty nicely. In a lot of ways… this is pretty well our team for next season. It’s good that we are gelling, that everyone’s producing and playing good hockey right now.”

Others have been contributing, but with less consistency. Anders Lee has tailed off a bit, which isn’t too much of a cause for concern because he’s young and he’s still generating chances even when he’s not finding his way onto the scoresheet.

Despite showing signs, Brock Nelson has gone seven consecutive games without a point. He did have a four-game point streak before this recent cold spell, so, overall, I’m not overly worried about him.

Then, there’s the curious case of Josh Bailey. The #IslesTwitter poster boy is on a tear right now, having racked up nine points in 10 games.

People have been quick to point out that they’ve seen this movie before. It’s a fair reason to be skeptical but, for me, what Bailey has done this time has been a bit different.

Whereas in past years he’s had the luxury of hiding behind Tavares and other players, that’s not the case anymore. Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner are all injured, meaning Bailey has been forced into a role where he actually does need to step up. To his credit, he has done so.

Head coach Jack Capuano has always stressed that when Bailey’s moving his feet and he’s engaged in the play, he’s a threat to score. That has been happening more and more over of late. I’m also not going to completely throw out his recent production, because scoring and building confidence are never bad things.

Any time you get on a roll towards the end of a season, there’s always a chance you pick up in October where you left off in April. At a certain point, you lose the benefit of the doubt. But let’s remember that Bailey is 24 years old, so, as far as I’m concerned, he’s still quite capable of righting the ship. I will acknowledge, however, that his chances could be running out.

NOTES: Defenseman Kevin Czuczman has continued to impress. He’s looked poised, made smart decisions with and without the puck and has been a significant reason why the Isles have been better in their own zone. Czuczman may need to fine-tune certain parts of his game, but he has “NHL” written all over him.

Prospect Kirill Petrov has opted to remain in the KHL next season. This really isn’t a big loss for the Islanders. He’s not exactly producing over there and has been incredibly inconsistent. Even if he landed at JFK Airport tomorrow, he wouldn’t make an immediate impact. The only inconvenience to the Islanders, to be honest, is that his decision to stay in Russia means he can’t really be used as a trade chip.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI

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