Long Way To Go, But There's No Denying The Rebuild Is Clearly Working

By B.D. Gallof, WFAN.com

UNIONDALE, N.Y. (WFAN) — Don’t look now, but one-eighth of the way through this compressed season the Islanders are among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference.

Of course there’s still a long way to go and plenty can still go wrong, but the Islanders are clearly better offensively than in years past and aren’t as bad defensively as many figured they’d be.

The Isles are 2-1-1 on their current road trip, which culminates Thursday in New Jersey in what is the opener of a home-and-home set. The rematch is set for Super Bowl Sunday starting at 3 p.m.

We’ll likely learn a bit more about this team over the next few days.

Let’s get the over time loss in Winnipeg out of the way…

Mistakes happened. The Isles could not hold a third-period, two-goal lead. It was certainly a reminder of the third-period outages of the last few years, and was also indicative of a defense that is not without flaws.

However, what should be clear is the Islanders’ offense is becoming prolific. And that’s saying something considering all the questions that were asked last season during a campaign that basically featured just one line doing all the heavy lifting.

That’s not the case now. The Islanders are getting consistent scoring from their second and third lines, in addition to John Tavares and Matt Moulson picking up where they left off last season and actually looking better.

But getting back to Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Jets, bad and bitter defeats with a game in hand is a way of life in the NHL, even for top teams. And without fail, following the loss the melodrama began online, with message boards and Twitter screaming the same knee-jerk reactions as usual, the type of stuff that’s more emotional than logical.

If you take nothing else out of this column, take this: Coaching is not an issue.

If anything, coaching has already contributed greatly to the stunning success of both the power play and penalty kill, besides the better-than-usual play 5-on-5, an area the Islanders struggled to rectify last season. Defense was going to be an issue. We all knew it coming into the season, so lets not play games here. The Islanders raided the waiver wire for help at both ends of the ice. Defensively, there’s a clear work-in-progress currently in motion.

If there was a silver lining to come out of Sunday’s loss, the Isles got a point on the road. And as we all know, those things don’t grow on trees.

For once, down and out in Pittsburgh doesn’t apply …

What we saw on national television Tuesday night was a masterpiece. The Isles’ defense played tight, closed down lanes, and cleared the puck better than they have in a while. The offense generated four more goals, giving the Islanders 22 for the season, at the time the second most in the Eastern Conference.

But don’t take my word for how well the Islanders played. I asked Brian Metzer, who writes for fromthepoint.com and is an NHL correspondent and host of PensWeek with Bob Grove, to offer a few notes in a write-up on what he saw from Islanders during Tuesday night’s game. His words speak for themselves: “The Islanders were the hungrier team throughout the evening. They worked harder. They made smarter plays with the puck and at times made the Penguins look slow and or lazy. Were the Penguins playing a lazy game? Maybe. But the Islanders deserve full credit for bringing energy that hasn’t always been noticeable in recent forays into the CONSOL Energy Center. There was a definite urgency to their game and their speed makes them a tough team to play against.”

“Michael Grabner looks every bit the player who scored 34-goals two seasons ago, as he dominated with amazing skating throughout the night. If he gets a step on a defenseman, he is going the other way and likely finding a way to score,” Metzer said.

“John Tavares is quickly rising into the upper echelon of superstars in the league and he looked lethal on a second period power play. The chemistry that he clearly has with Matt Moulson is going to net the duo a ton of points,” Metzer said.

“Youngster Casey Cizikas had a particularly nice game in picking up the game’s opening goal with some hard work deep in the Penguins’ zone,” Metzer said.

“The Islanders blue line has been bolstered by the addition of former Penguin Brian Strait. The young rearguard played 21 minutes and has found a home skating next to the crafty Mark Streit. Lubomir Visnovsky is only going to help the cause and the Atlantic Division should brace for a year in which the Islanders butt into the playoff conversation,” Metzer said.

So what to think at the one-eighth pole?

No matter what you do there will always be self-loathing Isles fans convinced that the team will never turn a corner. Rather than fight them on that, just ignore them. The rest of us should look at this 3-2-1 record and lofty position in the conference as something more than just league-wide confusion to start a season. Sure, there’s work to be done, but there are also plenty of facts that are not open to debate:

Offensively, the Islanders went into Wednesday tied with Chicago for fifth in goals per game at 3.67. That’s a half-goal better than their 23rd ranked defense. New York will likely need the former to at worst stay the same and the latter decrease somewhat if they are to make it into the playoffs.

The Islanders’ power play has climbed to No. 5 in the NHL, converting 30 percent of the time. Their penalty kill is ranked behind only Boston and Chicago, a stunning 95 percent.

The penalty kill prowess has been a full staff effort. Though Doug Weight is the man on paper who runs special teams, a team source told me the entire coaching staff has a hand in setting up the schemes. However, Weight should be credited with significant scouting of opponents.

Room for improvement

The Islanders still lag in the shots per game department. The same is also true in how many shots they see per game. They managed to win twice despite getting outshot. That’s not a good habit to try to practice.

They need to get more pucks on net and play more in the opposition’s zone instead of backtracking into their own end. As we have seen, this defense will remain a work in progress. It cannot be forced to do too much because it simply lacks the experience. It’s better the Islanders become a more consistent offensive team while the defensive maturation continues.

Attributes and observations

Travis Hamonic is now unofficially the heart and soul of the team, after playing big minutes against the Penguins despite an ankle injury. Hamonic and Andy MacDonald have been the big minutes guys this season, with AMac tending to be very underrated by most fans, yet nothing but steady.

From time to time Streit tries to do too much, and despite his offensive prowess is a minus-5 through six games. His new pairing partner, Strait, a waiver pickup, clearly seems like a top four defender and is being used as such. With 20 more minutes Tuesday night, Strait has clearly been a boon to the defense corps.

Add Visnovsky to the mix (his agent has said he’ll join the Islanders by Feb. 11, but I’d understand it if you didn’t hold your breath) and this defense would have quite a bit of talent in a hurry. Perhaps enough to deal Visnovsky to a West Coast team come trade deadline? Maybe.

Thomas Hickey has also shown potential beyond being just a depth defenseman. Though the jury is still out on Joe Finley, who might have been done a disservice by Capuano being paired with Matt Carkner, the talent level is better than it has been in a while and still has Matt Donovan and Aaron Ness a call-up away in Bridgeport. That’s not so bad considering what we all saw just a few weeks ago, right?

As far as forwards go, Marty Reasoner, a fan punching bag last season, should be given some kudos for why the penalty kill has been so good. He and Matt Martin have spelled forwards Michael Grabner and Frans Nielsen, and haven’t missed a beat.

Though Colin McDonald was awarded a two-game suspension for his hit Tuesday night, the Islanders are expected topush Eric Boulton to the fourth line. I’d expect one of the fourth line wings to get a shot on the third line. Then, in a week or so, Josh Bailey will return and likely rotate into the third line to get acclimated.

In conclusion …

All in all, with the Islanders apparently striking gold again on the waiver wire, depth developing where there needs to be, and a load of kids at Bridgeport all chomping at the bit to get a call to the “show,” isn’t this the product of what the islanders had designed back when the rebuild started in earnest? They used what they believed was a template for success and it is showing itself to be just that on the ice right now.

Now, before all the fans get excited and expectations get all out of whack, let urge some caution. The team is not there yet. Those around the team say the same thing. There will be bumps in the road. The Islanders need to stay on an even keel regardless if they win or lose. They need to remain balanced and focused through injuries and a very tough schedule.

So you shouldn’t pat yourselves on the back just yet. A bit more patience is needed, for the Isles have two with the Devils, a rematch with the Penguins and a tilt with the Rangers coming up in a hurry.

It won’t get any easier.

Read more columns by B.D. Gallof and follow him on Twitter at @BDGallof

Do you think the Islanders’ nice start is more reality or mirage? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below …