By Daniel Friedman
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It’s hard to believe that, after all that’s transpired over the past six days, the New York Islanders (3-2-2) haven’t lost any ground in the Metropolitan Division standings.
A 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night gave the Isles eight points, just one behind the second-place Carolina Hurricanes. Their “battle level” was far more evident and they kept the pressure on in the third period, which was not the case against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday.
“I don’t use the word ‘protect’ because we’re not trying to protect,” said head coach Jack Capuano after the game. “Our system is to play on our toes, and we continued to do that.”
No doubt, the offense was a bit sloppy at times. However, for what it’s worth, the Isles did put at least 40 shots on the board for the second-consecutive game. That’s refreshing, considering they had just 35 shots combined in Chicago and Nashville.
Something that’s become increasingly clear is the fact that the Islanders are going to score goals, and plenty of them.
John Tavares (nine points), Michael Grabner (eight points), Frans Nielsen (seven points) and Josh Bailey (seven points) have continued their red-hot play. Kyle Okposo (six points) is off to his fastest start in quite some time as well. Eleven skaters have a positive plus-minus and two are even. Those are all welcome developments.
Defensive breakdowns are ultimately what doom the Isles in hockey games and there were certainly a few last night. That said, they were significantly sharper in their own zone than they were against the Sabres.
Still, Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald have to be better without the puck if they’re going to lead this team on the blue line. Both have gotten off to rough starts.
The Islanders are coming through on the score sheet and there’s a bevy of talent for the coaches and management to work with. However, just because you have the puzzle pieces, it doesn’t mean you’re putting them in the right places.
Seven games are in the books and, already, the Isles have resembled a perpetual game of “Musical Chairs.”
That would be understandable in the preseason, but not now. Lineup changes are inevitable, but the frequency at which they’re being made and the small sample sizes they’re being based off of are causes for concern.
At some point, the coaching staff needs to sit down and figure out what this team is going to look like. The fact that there have been multiple variations of the first line this early on is a bit alarming.
Speaking of the top line, don’t let the stats fool you — it’s been atrocious. That’s something Capuano finally expressed after last night’s game and it was refreshing to hear.
When asked what he liked about the trio, his response was as follows: “After the first period, there wasn’t much. They had one shot on net. We’re thinking about changing that line up, to be honest with you.”
For a team that’s been blessed with excellent first lines the last few years, this is the worst one they’ve had in a while. John Tavares, Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo have not gelled and that probably won’t change anytime soon.
When you have an elite playmaker centering wingers who are more attuned to carrying the biscuit into the offensive zone, that makes it difficult for Tavares to be productive because there’s less puck-movement between the three forwards.
Separating Tavares and Matt Moulson was also an illogical move, even though they’re still on the ice together during power plays. Moulson doesn’t belong on the third line. His style just doesn’t mesh with Peter Regin and Cal Clutterbuck’s (not that I think those two are compatible as line-mates, either).
At morning skate Thursday, I asked Moulson about the challenges of playing without Tavares.
“Obviously, Tavares is an elite player and one of the best in the world,” Moulson said. “He does some things out there that not many guys can do. But Cal (Clutterbuck) and (Peter) Regin are good players as well and are easy to play with.”
Capuano did move Pierre-Marc Bouchard to the second line, which I thought was a step in the right direction. Bouchard has responded, with two assists in as many games since the promotion.
“We’ve had conversations on how he needs to play,” said Capuano. “I told him my expectations of him and he gave me his concerns. He got an opportunity and I think he took advantage of it, but there’s gotta be consistency for him to get those minutes. He’s a creative, point-producer type guy, and he’s only gonna get those points and be productive if he competes hard every shift and does the little things. That’s what we need out of him.”
I found it interesting that Bouchard was put on the second line with Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey after expressing concerns about his situation. He’s the type of player that needs the proper line-mates to succeed and, now that he’s in a better spot, the results have started to come.
When asked about Brock Nelson and Matt Donovan on Wednesday, Capuano started mentioning the fact that Bridgeport hasn’t really played any weekday games yet. If the idea of sending either player down wasn’t on his radar, there’d be little reason for him to make a Sound Tigers reference.
In both cases, there’s no sense in keeping them on Long Island to be a healthy scratch every night.
Sure, they’re practicing with the big club, but it’s more important for them to be in “real-time” game scenarios.
Personally, I think an AHL stint would be rather beneficial for Nelson. Donovan, on the other hand, has accomplished just about everything there is to in the minor leagues. The NHL is exactly where he should be, in my opinion.
Nelson has shown flashes of brilliance, but at other times he’s been caught flat-footed. He needs to gain some more confidence and recording one point in four regular season games at the NHL level isn’t going to do the trick. Conversely, going to Bridgeport and becoming a dominant force there should give Nelson a major boost.
On Thursday night, Donovan was re-inserted into the lineup after sitting out against Nashville and Buffalo. He remarked that it allowed him to get a fresh perspective: “I was learning for myself what I have to do to get back into the lineup and play well. It pushes you that much harder. I’m here now and don’t want to get sent down. I have to play solid defense.”
Donovan said the coaches are looking for him to get better in the defensive zone. “They know I can put up numbers but they want me to play solid defensively,” he says. “I have to be able to shut down some of the top guys in the world. In the NHL, you’re playing against the best in the world.”
Both players have had their moments, but ultimately, the Isles’ brass and coaching staff will have the final word. “It’s tough decisions that we have to make as an organization,” said Capuano. “They’re (Donovan and Nelson) both young. They’re here right now and they’re getting the pace they need, they’re practicing, and these are tough decisions to make.”
Nothing has to be set in stone, but Capuano needs to at least get a sense of what his four lines are going to look like, because the first and third trios have just not developed enough chemistry to succeed. Figure out the lineup, make a decision on Nelson and Donovan, and then move forward.
That needs to happen or it’s going to be tough for the Islanders to compete as the season goes on. All this lineup juggling does is create a sense of confusion amongst the players.
Fortunately, this team has enough depth to roll four cohesive lines. If they can do that, their already-dangerous offense will be able to inflict even more damage.
One of these days, the rest of the Metropolitan Division will start playing better hockey. When that happens, the New York Islanders need to make sure their “battle level” is high enough.
It’s time to put the puzzle together.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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