By Jeff Capellini
If you woke up Monday morning feeling exasperated, I can’t say I blame you.
The Islanders teased their fans over the last two weeks of the regular season, closing with six consecutive wins. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
They missed out on Lord Stanley’s tournament by one measly point, finishing with 94, a very respectable number for most any team any season. But these Islanders were expected to be more. The previous two seasons suggested they were indeed ready for prime time. But what resulted in 2016-17 was a series of self-inflicted wounds that derailed what should have been the next step toward eventually challenging for a championship.
And, make no mistake, they pretty much got what they deserved.
From their failures from July 1 through training camp to bring in more offense than they lost in free agency, to stunningly brutal play early that ultimately doomed their cause, to the countless points they gave away throughout the 82-game odyssey due to incredibly bad decisions on and off the ice, the Islanders did what many experts predicted they would do long before the first puck was even dropped.
And now the questions should revolve around who should pay for it and what can be done to retool this thing and get it back going in the right direction.
What follows is a look at the good, the bad, the ugly and the unknown of the Isles’ current predicament:
The Positives (In a word, few)
Islanders apologists, of which there are many, will find silver linings in anything. I, for one, do not fit in that demographic. While the Isles had their moments this season, they were few and far between.
Three things fans can bank on going forward are the bright futures of Anders Lee, Josh Ho-Sang and Anthony Beauvillier.
Lee quietly developed into a premier power forward after finishing with a career-high 34 goals and 52 points. He was a driving force during the Isles’ winning streak to end the season, which was pulled off without the services of star center John Tavares, who suffered a season-ending lower-body injury on March 31. Lee seized control of the offense, putting up six goals and an assist during the late surge and cementing his place on Tavares’ wing for life, assuming Tavares stays an Islander for life.
More on that later.
Ho-Sang, who inexplicably was not called up until March 2, had 10 points in 21 games, but his impact went far beyond the numbers. The 21-year-old winger showed why he was a first-round pick a few years ago, displaying the type of playmaking ability that with the right supporting cast around him could result in a tremendous point producer.
He was the Isles’ most dynamic presence on the ice during the playoff push, often producing highlight-reel plays that left a lot of people salivating for the chance to see more of him.
You will, next season. I can’t imagine him ever seeing AHL Bridgeport again after he finishes his current tour as a mercenary brought back just to help the Sound Tigers get into the playoffs and perhaps win a round or two.
Beauvillier, at the ripe old age of 19, defied tall odds by making the team out of camp and went on to record 24 points in 66 games, often displaying blinding speed and a skill set not seen from an Isles rookie in some time, or at least before both him and Ho-Sang arrived on the scene.
And if we’re being fair, let’s give Josh Bailey one final pat on the back. He had, for him, a tremendous season with a career-high 56 points. While he remains the most debated Islander as far as his true value goes, there’s no denying that he found himself this season as a playmaker. On the flipside, for all his ability, he is not a very good goal scorer. All that said, in my opinion, he remains a player who can be replaced, provided the Isles’ front office actually makes a trade.
More on that later, too.
The Negatives (In a word, many)
Sure, 94 points. Impressive total. But reality is the Islanders were a .500 hockey team (41-29-12). Only the NHL’s insane point system could make them appear to be more than what they actually were.
Think about how easily they could have surpassed 100 — and locked up a playoff spot early — if any of the following had been corrected or not explored in the first place.
The three-goalie plan: This was about as ill-conceived an idea as I’ve seen in some time. The fact that the Isles stuck to their guns with it as long as they did is simply mind-boggling.
Now, did veteran goalie Jaroslav Halak deserve a talking to or reprimand for his and his agent’s antics criticizing the team carrying Halak, Thomas Greiss and unproven youngster Jean-Francois Berube? Of course. But Halak was banished for basically three months, a decision that reeked of a personal vendetta more than anything else.
In that time, Greiss was left on his own behind a porous defense and eventually his play tailed off to the point where general manager Garth Snow had no choice but to bring Halak back.
And, of course, Halak then went on to seize the No. 1 job, going 6-1 with a 1.58 goals-against average and .949 save percentage.
That alone should get someone fired.
Oh, but there’s a lot more.
Jack Capuano stayed way too long: Snow’s decision to stick with Capuano as head coach as long as he did without a doubt impacted the Isles’ playoff chances. I can say that because the team went 24-12-4 under interim coach Doug Weight. And while it’s true the Isles were not as good defensively under Weight as they were with Capuano, they were simply a more explosive and better-skating group after Capuano was fired on Jan. 17. Combine that with the goaltending shenanigans, which were all on Snow, and the defensive deficiencies may not have proven to be as big an issue.
Goalies are that important for a reason.
The power play was a joke: Even with Tavares often being the most skilled player on the ice, Lee having a monster season and Bailey playing out of his mind, the Islanders finished 28th in the league with the man advantage (14.9 percent). Perhaps the most frustrating part of that was the fact that the front office, for reasons only it knows, decided to keep defenseman Ryan Pulock and his incredible slap shot and stellar offensive awareness in the minors all season, even though he has torched the AHL for 44 points in 53 games.
The Questions (In a word, countless)
Obviously, Tavares’ future will remain the big issue until it’s not. I, for one, don’t believe he’s going anywhere, despite the throng of national and Canadian reporters who want him out of Brooklyn yesterday.
Tavares, who has one year remaining on his contract, has never once said anything to the contrary of his earlier statements about wanting to be an Islander for life, so this idea that he’ll now refuse to sign a contract extension is, to me, more fear about the ramifications of this bitterly disappointing season than it is anything actually based in fact.
I could end up being wrong here, but I just don’t see it. My guess is the Isles lock No. 91 up for eight years on or around July 1, the first day they are allowed to sign him to an extension, according to the collective bargaining agreement.
Snow’s future: Until proven otherwise, I stand by the notion that Garth is the emperor of Brooklyn.
Maybe the fact that the Isles ultimately missed the playoffs will get new owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin thinking something that is contrary to what many believe, but I just don’t get the feeling that the new guys in charge want to cause major upheaval off a season in which a few scatter-brained decisions pretty much sank the ship. I mean, this is correctable stuff. Someone could learn from the mistakes and easily make amends.
Hey, I’m just trying to get inside the minds of two guys who have shut everyone out. I don’t actually feel this way.
Truth is, I have to see Snow removed to believe it will happen (his contract could be a sticking point because no one short of a very small circle of people knows what it is). Same with this notion of the team bringing in a president of hockey operations, as has been rumored. It’s a very sound idea, but Snow could be owed big money for multiple years to come and seems to have unfettered autonomy. So while a qualified guy such as multiple Cup-winning executive Dean Lombardi is now officially available after being fired Monday night by the Los Angeles Kings, the Isles could have reservations. It almost makes too much sense for Ledecky and Malkin to write him a blank check. But will they? Your guess is as good as mine.
The one thing I do know is the owners need to get a bit more hands-on in their approach here. Sure, the arena deal should be a top priority, as it appears to be. But you’re not going to draw flies regardless of where the games are played if the team doesn’t improve on the ice. Islanders fans simply aren’t fooled. Not anymore. If you need proof, you need only look at the Isles’ attendance this season at Barclays Center on nights the Rangers weren’t in the building.
Weight’s future: I hope Weight decides he wants to be a coach full-time and the Isles react accordingly and retain him. He brought an energy and all-around X’s and O’s prowess that few seemed to think he possessed. The Isles played hard for him, and I’d be interested to see his more wide-open style employed over 82 games, as opposed to 40.
But, of course, this would only work if the Isles make a significant move or two to improve the on-ice product. In fact, that should be the case no matter who ends up being the coach.
Speaking of moves: Only defenseman Dennis Seidenberg is an unrestricted free agent this summer, so whatever the Isles do, they are going to have to trade some of what they have to free up roster space, assuming they actually think they have to get better from a personnel standpoint. To me, it’s a no-brainer.
While Lee’s development has been fantastic, the Isles still need another top-end forward and could also use another veteran defenseman who can move the puck, while at the same time actually puts defense first.
The expansion draft will almost certainly cost the Islanders a player. But with some maneuvering, this team can upgrade and free up roster spots for the Mathew Barzals and Pulocks of the world.
The time between now and free agency is going to be fascinating. There’s no telling what will happen. We’re going to find out who really runs this team.
The only thing we know for certain is Islanders fans still have their noses pushed up against the glass watching the NHL’s elite, and that has to stop.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN