By Jeff Capellini
The Islanders are the epitome of consistently inconsistent. One minute they look like a team that can play with anyone. The next, they put a serious strain on their fans’ belief system.
Though their do-or-die, franchise-record nine-game road trip has produced seven points over the first six games, an acceptable amount given the condensed schedule, the Islanders really don’t look like a team that is coming together. They remain nightly potluck on skates.
They have 18 games left to change that.
The good news is, despite some glaring no-shows of late, the Isles entered play Tuesday a point ahead of Toronto for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. But the bad news is they still have to travel to Edmonton, Vancouver and St. Louis this week before the odyssey finally ends. Which version of this team you’ll see is anyone’s guess.
The Islanders’ three wins on the trip — at Detroit, Montreal and Dallas — were collectively very good efforts. Even the shootout loss at Chicago was impressive when you consider the Blackhawks were in the midst of winning 11 of their last 12 (now 12 of 13 with their victory at Nashville on Saturday). The fact that the Isles played arguably the NHL’s premier franchise to a standstill over the game’s 65 minutes-plus and managed to get a point should overshadow the fact that they once again gave up a lead late.
Islanders fans likely went to bed Friday night feeling pretty good about themselves.
But then came Sunday’s game at Calgary. The Isles got destroyed in the first period by the surging Flames. The 4-0 deficit after 20 minutes had many, myself included, assaulting the clicker in search of something else.
The eventual 5-2 loss conjured images of the Isles’ embarrassing 7-0 defeat at Columbus on Feb. 25 — their other regulation loss on this trip — and the equally infuriating 7-1 loss at Toronto on Feb. 14. In all three games, they looked nothing like a playoff contender, which is odd considering what the standings say.
New York is very fortunate not to be looking up at several teams right now, and while that may just be the nature of the beast as far as league-wide parity is concerned, this team’s oft-maddening lack of focus has to have every last person affiliated with the franchise concerned.
The bottom line is teams that hope to be more come the postseason don’t absorb as many humiliating defeats as the Islanders have suffered this late in a season. This is a total feast-or-famine operation right now, so there’s no way to accurately predict what New York will do Tuesday night in Edmonton, against another team that could easily lower the boom if the Isles don’t hit the ice with their thinking caps on.
In Jaro You Should Trust
For reasons only general manager Garth Snow knows, goaltender Jaroslav Halak is still languishing in the AHL, despite going 14-3-1 with a 2.02 goals-against average and .931 save percentage following his demotion after being placed on waivers back on Dec. 30.
All indications are Halak was not traded at the deadline because the Isles couldn’t find a team, despite the reported interest, that was willing to take on most, if not all, of his contract. That’s understandable. The Isles didn’t want to be on the hook for the remaining money from this season and the $5 million he is due in 2017-18.
But now that we know he will remain in the organization, at least through the end of this season, it seems ridiculous to me to keep him buried at Bridgeport.
Regardless of your feelings about Halak and his agent, who are mostly to blame for the 31-year-old netminder’s current lot in life, the Islanders simply cannot rely on Jean-Francois Berube to back up Thomas Greiss. Berube may end up being a very good goalie in the NHL, but it’s not going to happen over the final month of the season. The Isles need wins any way they can get them, and if that means playing a guy they can’t stand in Halak, so be it. He’s vastly superior to Berube in just about every way and would be a fine stand-in for Greiss, who has been up and down since signing his contract extension.
If the Isles are simply punishing Halak and have no intention of ever bringing him back up, they are not doing everything in their power to give this team its best chance to make the playoffs.
Which brings me to my final point …
‘We Like Our Guys Better’
Snow said as much not long after the March 1 trade deadline passed. The fact that this GM once again did not make a significant move to improve his club surprised even me. I figured it had to happen this time, given how poorly the Isles started the season and how nicely they had since recovered. Yet this team’s playoff hopes are hanging by a thread with a roster that has given few indications that it can take its play to the next level and keep it there.
The way I saw it was there was no way Snow wouldn’t have a Plan B if his main target, reportedly Colorado’s Matt Duchene, wasn’t moved.
Yet the Isles did nothing, which is even less than they did last season.
When it comes to trades, they continue to stick to their guns about only desiring young players with term left on their contracts. The “bigger picture” is supposedly always on their minds, which rules out rentals. Yet since 2006, Snow’s first year as GM, the Islanders have just one playoff series win. Sooner or later, that unsuccessful philosophy needs to be amended, no?
Snow may have done his best PR spin by saying he likes his players better, as in the guys who were returning from injury — Travis Hamonic, Cal Clutterbuck and Shane Prince — but the Isles didn’t really do much of anything with all three in the lineup when they were healthy. The run the Isles went on after Jack Capuano was fired had almost everything to do with interim coach Doug Weight inspiring others to step up.
Every year the urgency to act grows, but we end up being served vast helpings of reasoning and rationale for the lack of proactivity that ends up overpowering the notion of improving for the here and now.
First we’re told how the Isles will take advantage of cap-strapped teams before the season starts, like Nick Leddy- and Johnny Boychuk-type trades are a given. Those stunning moves were made more than three years ago, and there has not been a significant deal since.
After the October trades fail to materialize, we’re told a deal will be made closer to the deadline. But, of course, it rarely happens.
Then we’re assured that trades will be made at the draft, yet each September come the start of camp we see by and large the same core of players that have won exactly nothing since this rebuild was kicked into high gear several years ago.
I say this all the time, and it’s still valid. The Islanders have everyone but veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg signed for next season. The only way to add experienced talent and free up roster spots to promote kids from the minors is to clear space by trading some assets currently on the big club’s roster. Yet, through the Islanders’ actions, we’re left expected to believe that next year will be the year when it finally all comes together and the kids collectively take a step forward.
That rationale is getting harder and harder to stomach.
I’d be wary of upping expectations over the final month. The Isles may just be what they are, whatever that is.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN