By Jeff Capellini
Lost in the euphoria that has accompanied the long-awaited news of the Islanders getting their new arena is one unavoidable fact.
The product on the ice at this very moment has some massive problems.
The Islanders can score with anybody. They roll four lines with impunity. Their speed and skill may be unrivaled anywhere across the NHL. We haven’t seen a collection of players in these here parts with this type of ability since the glory years, since the time when Nassau Coliseum’s exterior still sparkled and the interior had yet to fall victim to abuse by that powers that used to be.
Even the power play, long the bane of this franchise’s more recent existence, is pretty damn good.
But the Islanders, for all the good they have done stockpiling young players who can dazzle with the puck, are a horrendous defensive team.
There’s really no other way to put it.
How bad you ask?
The Islanders have given up 120 goals in 34 games, or 3.53 per game. Only the Arizona Coyotes, who have an NHL-low 19 points, have given up more. As for New York’s penalty kill, it has been successful 72.3 percent of the time, which is, you guessed it, dead last in the league.
That high-powered offense I was talking about before? Basically it has been neutralized by the Isles’ own defense, as they have scored just one more goal than they have given up.
It’s actually a miracle this team is 18-13-3, sitting in a wild-card spot, and just six points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division, the toughest division in the NHL by far.
By the same token, if the Isles even had the slightest clue how to play in their own end and their goalies were at the very least average, they’d be leading the division by God only knows how many points.
Who deserves the blame for this train wreck depends on who you talk to. Some folks want to put it all on goalies Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss, who have basically been abysmal, while others see the problems as more scheme-related, as in a defensive structure that is all out of whack.
Of course, there are those who want to blame general manager Garth Snow, who traded defenseman Travis Hamonic away over the summer and has yet to make a move to help put out the fire inside his scorched blue line.
Doug Weight, you’re wondering? Oh, he’s certainly not teflon, regardless of how good his overall record is since he took over as head coach in January. Weight’s critics say he has proven that he can sure coach attacking and counter-attacking hockey and has no problem punishing forwards who refuse to do it in the manner he wants it done, but he’s yet to show he has an iota of a clue how to coach defense the way his predecessor, Jack Capuano, did.
What do I think? I think everyone from Weight to his new coaching staff to every last player in that locker room needs to start manning up. This idea that Snow can simply trade away a lot of the Islanders’ youth for fixes in net and on defense is almost certainly folly. Do you know how difficult it is to acquire a reliable starting goaltender and/or a top-four defenseman? Well, let’s put it this way: It’s a hell of a lot harder than shipping an underachieving kid such as Ryan Strome away for a proven 25-goal man in Jordan Eberle.
Very rarely do teams give up assets like that. And those that do usually don’t end up with GMs who stay in their jobs long enough to talk about it.
Seriously, this idea that Snow can fix the problems through trades is pie in the sky. The Isles are paying their goalies a combined $8.75 million this season. And so far Halak has posted a 2.97 goals-against average and .905 save percentage in 19 appearances, numbers that rank him 32nd and 33rd, respectively, in the league. Greiss’ numbers — 3.83 GAA and .883 save percentage in 18 games — are literally among the worst in the NHL. And both have mastered the art of the obligatory nightly soft goal.
Since it’s difficult to fathom Snow adding a goalie without subtracting one of those two, who in their right mind would take either?
As for the defensemen, the injury to Calvin de Haan hurts, but even his steady play didn’t do all that much to help a unit that allowed at least four goals in 12 of the team’s first 32 games. In a sense, the Isles have been doing what many fans wanted. They are playing younger players at all positions, save for goalie. Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield look like they belong in the NHL, but they haven’t come close to making the defense actually better.
When it comes to the other veterans, Nick Leddy is in the conversation for the Norris Trophy, as crazy as that sounds, but only because of his offensive skills. Johnny Boychuk has the heart of a warrior, but he gets beat — and beat up — when asked to play huge minutes. The guys I haven’t mentioned? They’re just kind of … there.
The Isles relinquish huge amounts of real estate in their own end. Opponents seem to have all day to set up, and that’s both five-on-five and on the counterattack. I’d do anything to see this team trap a bit here and there, choke off the blue line so opponents don’t gain the zone so easily, but that, of course, would stifle the potential for run ‘n gun offense the other way, which is what the Isles love to do.
And since it seems like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Erik Karlsson or any other apparently available top defenseman won’t be walking into the Isles’ locker room any time soon, it’s on the people who are here to figure it out.
Scoring is way up across the league. I understand that. But the Islanders have to find a way to be better than they’ve been so far. This isn’t a case of a team performing to the best of its abilities and simply not talented enough to get the job done. The Isles may not have great defensive defensemen and may miss a very good defensive forward in a Nikolay Kulemin, but they should be better than this in their own end. The breakdowns have been inexcusable at times for the talent they do have.
The coaches and players shouldn’t look to Snow to fix this mess. They need to roll up their sleeves and get to work and let the rest of us actually enjoy the idea of the new arena.
I don’t know about you, but I’m distracted by the eyesore on the ice so much I have a hard time envisioning dozens of acres of land at Belmont Park being transformed into a blue and orange utopia.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN