Problems Of The Past Still Haunting A Team That Should Be Even Better Than It Is

By Jeff Capellini
WFAN.com

The only thing standing in the way of the Islanders and a place among the NHL elite is themselves.

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The last thing in the world I want to do is pour cold water on what this team has accomplished to this point. For the Isles to be tied for first place in their division nearly midway through a grueling regular season schedule is quite an achievement, especially when you consider where they came from.

But to pretend they don’t have issues would be wearing blue-and-orange-tinted glasses. And with an insanely treacherous seven-game road trip through Western Canada and points elsewhere set to begin on Wednesday, the sooner the Islanders correct some of what ails them, the better off they’ll be as the calendar continues to flip toward April.

This team has the potential to do more than simply make the playoffs, but how much more will depend on a lot more than perhaps adding a piece or two at the trade deadline.

Looking at the Islanders’ 24-11-1 record you can’t help but see major progress. Through 36 games last season they were just 10-19-7, and didn’t earn their 24th win until March 4, 2014.

The main reasons for the turnaround can be attributed to the team’s core youngsters growing up a lot over the summer and to the major influx of talent that was brought in, specifically in goal and on defense. Those upgrades should eventually earn Garth Snow consideration for NHL General Manager of the Year.

It’s great that forward Ryan Strome is showing all the promise a top-5 pick should show. Yes, Jaroslav Halak is sporting a 2.27 goals-against average and .917 save percentage, and defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy have solidified a back end that was in disarray at the end of last season. But the Islanders still find themselves dealing with problems that have plagued them in the past.

They may be good enough to hide some of their faults now, but for how long is hard to predict. And although I believe head coach Jack Capuano has done a very good job this season, he will ultimately be taken to task if the Islanders end up flaming out earlier than expected. Many fans believe he’s not the man to take this club to the next level. I’m not sure, but if some of the following areas don’t improve the rest of the way the odds are the Isles won’t end up becoming all they can be.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT PROSPERITY AND THIS TEAM?

The Islanders seem to have a composure problem. For whatever reason they lose their edge when they feel comfortable. Why? I’m not going to pretend I know, but I do know it must be remedied soon.

Last season they had a penchant for blowing two-goal leads, 15 of them to be exact, and they went just 2-6-7 in those games. That lack of focus and maturity played a huge role in the Islanders finishing out of the playoffs with just 79 points.

This season the Isles have seemingly upped the ante, graduating to coughing up three-goal leads.

Four times in December alone have the Isles blown a 3-0 lead. Out of a possible eight points, they only escaped with three. The first two times happened on Dec. 6 and 9, in regulation losses to St. Louis and Minnesota, respectively. The other two happened in the Isles’ most recent games. They let 3-0 third period leads get away in a 4-3 shootout loss to Buffalo on Saturday and a 4-3 overtime win over Washington on Monday.

Something has to give here. I can think of maybe one or two games, tops, this entire season where the Islanders were not — for at least two periods — the better team. They have pretty much had a chance to beat every team they’ve played. If they had found a way to hold on to those four three-goal leads, Pittsburgh would look awfully small in their rearview mirror right now in the Metropolitan Division.

PUTTING THE POWER BACK IN THE PLAY

The second problem that needs to be fixed is special teams. The Islanders’ struggles on the penalty kill are well-documented, as they are currently 29th in the NHL at 74.8 percent. However, the good news is they have been a lot more aggressive on the puck over the last five games, and as a result have killed off their last 14 man-down situations.

The bigger issue currently is the power play. Considering the skill-sets the Islanders’ forwards employ and the cannons their defensemen have, they should be better than 16th in the league. Prior to going 2-for-7 during Monday night’s win over Washington, the Isles had been 0-for-13 over their previous five games.

I understand that every team goes through droughts on the power play, but the Isles seem extremely tentative. When they do gain the zone and set up, which sometimes is a struggle, they tend to pass and stand around too much. The fans inside the Coliseum and at home screaming “shoot!” are not crazy. There are no style points awarded for prettiest power-play goal. They all count the same. Shoot the puck.

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The playoff hopefuls that excel on special teams down the stretch will find themselves playing meaningful hockey this spring. The Isles really have no excuses in this facet of the game.

ANYONE WANT TO SKATE WITH TAVARES?

Though the top line has looked better over the last few games, it’s still too early to say Josh Bailey is the answer to the biggest question plaguing the lineup since training camp.

The best Tavares has ever looked as an Islander was last season, when he played between Kyle Okposo and Thomas Vanek. Since Vanek decided to sign with Minnesota, the Isles have held tryouts to find their franchise player’s other wingman. They have been reluctant to move Brock Nelson to the top line, and understandably so. Though they have scored 112 goals, third-most in the Eastern Conference, they have just two players in double figures — Tavares (15) and Nelson (14) — and have 18 goals from defensemen.

Nelson playing on the “Kid” line with Ryan Strome and Anders Lee or — as was the case Monday night — with veterans Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin allows the Islanders to have goal-scoring balance until others step forward.

In a perfect world, Bailey — long the bane of the fans’ existence — continues to provide a spark playing with Tavares, and actually starts putting the puck in the net on something resembling a consistent basis. If he doesn’t, and Capuano sticks to his guns and keeps Nelson on another line, Snow might be forced to look for some help at the deadline.

Because this idea that the Islanders made all the moves they made in the offseason just to stand pat during a playoff run when their top player needs help is pretty silly.

GOD FORBID HALAK GETS HURT

To say Chad Johnson has been a disappointment this season is putting it mildly. But he’s going to have to get his act in gear. Halak has never played more than 57 games in a season, and there’s no telling how his body and mind would react to overuse during the season’s second half.

Johnson is currently on pace to play around 23-24 games, which likely was the original plan when Snow signed him to a two-year contract during free agency. But what Snow wasn’t counting on was Johnson posting a 3.54 GAA and .867 save percentage during the season’s first half.

Granted, his numbers might be a bit inflated because the Isles were minus several of their best defensemen early. But even in his most recent appearance, a 3-1 loss to visiting Montreal on Dec. 23, Johnson didn’t exactly wow anyone with his play.

The biggest indictment of Johnson came right after the Christmas break against Buffalo. Capuano opted for emergency call-up Kevin Poulin to cover for an injured Halak, despite the fact that Johnson had just had three full days off while Poulin had played the night before for AHL Bridgeport.

Make no mistake, the Islanders need two sharp goaltenders to get through the regular-season odyssey. Assuming they make the playoffs, Halak will then take over exclusively. But in the interim, Johnson needs to get going or else he’ll force Snow to act, and Islanders fans should have every reason to believe he will act.

We are all going to learn a lot during this long road trip, which will take the Isles to Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. The trip will finish on the East Coast in Columbus, New Jersey and at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.

The next time the Islanders will see the Coliseum will be on Jan. 16, against Pittsburgh, the team they were dead even with atop the Metropolitan entering play Wednesday.

The next two-and-a-half weeks are going to tell you a lot about what these Islanders are made of.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet

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