By Jeff Capellini
The Islanders are where they are right now for one simple reason — and it has little to do with injuries.
While it’s true they have been down top defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, useful blueliner Brian Strait and veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov for some time now, the Islanders were not reconstructed in the offseason to be any better than they were at the end of last season.
And considering how the Islanders had supposedly “arrived” during their six-game loss to Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs, they owed their fans a lot more than modest maneuvers during free agency in order to go from being a good story to THE story. They had a chance to command more coverage in an area that has been inundated by negativity surrounding utterly pathetic football and basketball teams, and hockey rivals that, let’s face it, haven’t gotten their seasons off the ground yet, either.
The idea was for the Islanders to take the next step. They obviously haven’t. And if things don’t change soon it will be an even tougher sell to the fans next offseason, the franchise’s last at Nassau Coliseum before heading to Brooklyn, when other members of this team’s core start getting their extensions.
I have been general manager Garth Snow’s biggest supporter on this side of the Atlantic for some time now, but it’s hard to defend him as the Isles sit with just eight wins in their first 28 games.
Yes, injuries have played a role, but nowhere near as much as some would have you believe.
The front office’s relative inactivity in the offseason left the Isles with no margin for error. And while you can say the club went away from its cost-cutting ways by spending a lot more money than usual, Snow did it to further his belief in the players he had — not the players he needed.
Of course, home-grown talents like Travis Hamonic and Josh Bailey needed to be extended, but not at the expense of also bringing in proven commodities from elsewhere that could have actually helped teach this team how to win — something the Isles still don’t know how to do, by the way. This team is basically headless, short of John Tavares being captain in name and leading by example in ability. But he’s no rah-rah guy and he’s not the type to bend anyone’s will in any certain direction.
Sooner or later, Snow has to look in the mirror and ask himself if he’s over-valued some of his players. The question is, when is sooner, because it’s getting later with every passing day.
Think about it — the Isles have bounced three kid defensemen back and forth between Bridgeport and Uniondale. They have asked Matt Carkner, a tough guy who can play a little, to be an everyday defenseman. They revisited Radek Martinek, who fans may appreciate due to his loyalty, but is really a shell of the player he once had the potential to be. They have Andrew MacDonald logging an insane number of minutes each night, and he, as evidenced by his penchant for turning the puck over, is in no way a No. 1 defenseman. Some would argue he’s in no way a No. 2 defenseman. Yet he will be one of those core kids getting quite the raise next offseason.
Many of the Isles’ defensemen are playing a lot more than they should. That would probably have still been the case to some degree if Visnovsky had stayed healthy. Don’t get me wrong, Visnovsky is a nice player, but he’s more of an offensive player. And while he will bring some stability back to the Islanders’ end, he’s not the guy who you can ask to defend opponents’ top players every night and expect far different results than we have seen for weeks.
The Islanders simply don’t have that guy, as much as their fans want to believe Hamonic should be.
Then there’s the goaltending situation, which has been unacceptable since July. The Islanders needed an upgrade over Nabokov, who was part Swiss cheese, part victim during the playoff series loss to the Penguins, but chose to not part with young assets in trades or do what was necessary in free agency. Instead, they brought back Nabokov for more money than he made last season and he ended up being nothing short of a disaster statistically before going down with a groin injury on Nov. 16 against Detroit.
A lot of people saw his on-ice demise coming. If you were shocked by it, I don’t know what to tell you.
The interim “solution” since then has been to play rookies Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, young goalies the Islanders fan had hoped to see this season, but more as backups learning the ropes, not as inexperienced every-night guys behind the NHL’s most brutal defense. And though they have shown some promise here and there, the jury is nowhere near coming in on either and the Isles, as in the team that was supposed to be better than an eighth seed this season, remain without the type of goaltending they absolutely have to have this season to at worst win a round in the playoffs.
So, what is Snow to do from here? Probably very little before the calendar turns over.
He made his big splash early in the season with the trade that sent popular and productive forward Matt Moulson to Buffalo for elite sniper Thomas Vanek. A lot of people criticized that move because the Isles went south shortly thereafter, but truth be told if you honestly think that trade had anything to do with the team’s overall implosion you need to rethink things. The power play was better with Moulson, sure, but the Isles’ point play overall has been atrocious and they are getting absolutely zero from the second unit. Plus, it’s very difficult for even elite power play units to produce consistently.
Vanek was the upgrade on the Tavares line that Snow couldn’t get done during the offseason. Even if Vanek stinks up the joint the rest of the season, which he won’t because his chemistry with Tavares is growing by the day, the only way that trade is a failure is if Snow doesn’t re-sign him. Considering many believe Snow didn’t make the move without being prepared to do whatever is necessary to bring Vanek back, expect the Isles to make a world class pitch to their world class player.
But the Vanek acquisition aside, the Isles are in a fix right now. First pairing defensemen are very hard to find and usually come with a massive asking price. Plus, every team wants them, which makes acquiring one even more difficult. Snow has said the return of Visnovsky and Strait is expected to help stabilize the defense and not until then will any assessments of what the Islanders actually are be made.
At this point, if the Isles get a goaltending upgrade over what they have fans should pinch themselves. I know Ryan Miller and Jonas Hiller appear to be available, but the Isles might have used their best assets in the Vanek trade and the value of many of their chips on the roster have been diminished by the terrible start. For example, a lot of GMs don’t think of Michael Grabner and Josh Bailey as top six forwards. Why should they? Those two have not scored a goal in a combined 41 games. As for what’s at Bridgeport, I still find it hard to believe Snow will part with anything of any real value right now to get the goalie he needs.
Jack Capuano has been at the center of a lot of the fans’ angst, but it’s really hard to know what he is as a coach considering the Isles’ lack of talent at certain positions and their need for veteran leadership. Snow will not replace him any time soon. Capuano will likely get as long as it takes for Visnovsky and Strait to prove just how irreplaceable they are supposed to be, within this team’s blueprint. The assumption being, of course, once those two get back out there and into the flow the Isles should turn things around.
I just have to question why Snow puts so much stock in two players that are by no means elite defensemen in the first place.
Maybe the truth is Snow thinks continued continuity is more important than an immediate leap in the standings, and sacrificing the season with no major changes the rest of the way may be necessary to keep the rebuild on course. That would mean most of the same names and faces returning next season.
But again, does he have the right players and coach for the long haul? Is this season of regression just a blip on the radar within the fabric of the long-term outlook?
If you know the answer, you’re a smarter man than me — and likely a smarter man than Snow.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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