By Daniel Friedman
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We’re some time away from the start of the playoffs, but what happens between now and then has the potential to impact a team’s trajectory.
The Islanders (33-17-1) are no exception, and while they’re all but assured of a postseason berth, they’ve got quite a bit of holes to plug up. As has been well documented, the primary concern right now is special teams – particularly the penalty kill. There’s also a fear of the unknown regarding Kyle Okposo’s injury and whether or not he’ll be the same player when he’s cleared to return. The third major issue has been backup goalie Chad Johnson’s ineffectiveness.
Let’s tackle special teams first. I think that putting all of the blame for the Isles’ PK woes on assistant Greg Cronin is a bit much, though he definitely deserves his share.
I’m not sure if his strategy is designed to leave someone like Alex Ovechkin or PK Subban wide open at the blue line. In fact, I have a hard time believing that it does, even if that means he wants a forward to shuttle back and fourth between the slot and the area above the faceoff circles. Regardless, it’s not getting done. Part of that is on the players, but some is on the coach as well. There’s clearly been miscommunication on both sides.
The way I see it — if you’ve got Frans Nielsen, Michael Grabner, Nikolay Kulemin, Casey Cizikas, Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic and Jaroslav Halak, you should be able to execute well on the penalty kill. That’s a fine group of defensive-minded players who not only can create turnovers and break up opposing scoring chances, but can also generate and maintain puck possession. Not to mention the fact that Halak has been outstanding this season.
For that reason, I have to put more blame on Cronin, just because I refuse to believe that those aforementioned players are incapable of killing a penalty. They haven’t been at their best either, and are ultimately the ones who are on the ice giving away those chances and goals against, so of course they’re at fault, too. But there are two sides to this story.
In the playoffs, where the games are tight checking and more intense, every mistake is 1,000 times more costly. If the Islanders can’t figure out how to make some plays in the defensive zone when they’re down a man, they’re going to be eliminated relatively quickly.
As for Okposo’s health, it’s a legitimate concern. That does not, however, mean that general manager Garth Snow should be on his hands and knees begging for Phil Kessel. I would say that, even assuming Okposo is healthy and equally as effective as he was before, a veteran scoring winger to compliment that arsenal really couldn’t hurt. We’ll discuss this more as the trade deadline approaches.
Now, onto the next topic: goaltending.
When the Islanders signed Johnson, everyone (myself included) felt that, if nothing else, they were getting a reliable backup goalie. He has proven to be anything but, and it’s a major issue.
You might say “well, he’s just the backup so who cares if he can’t play?” My answer to that is, it’s not so much about Johnson as it is about keeping Halak fresh.
One of the major criticisms that has been heaped upon Islanders’ head coach Jack Capuano has been his apparent disinterest in starting Johnson. I’m going to go ahead and defend Capuano, because to be quite honest, he doesn’t have much choice. How the heck can he trust Johnson at this point? What exactly has Johnson done to earn more starts?
People have been quick to reference the fact that Johnson rarely plays, hence the inconsistency in his game. I’m sorry, that’s not how hockey works. You have to earn playing time; it is a privilege, not a right. And what those folks don’t seem to recall is that the coaching staff gave Johnson every opportunity to earn his keep at the beginning of the season.
Johnson started the second game of the season (granted, it was a back-to-back) on Oct. 11. He did not start again until the Oct. 21, but he played that game and then three more times between Oct. 23 and Oct. 30. He was good in a couple of those games, but horrendous in the others. As we’ve seen in most of his subsequent starts, the numbers have tended to align with the couple of bad games during that early stretch.
Consider this: Johnson has not posted a save percentage of .900 or better since Nov. 6. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a span of three months.
Not only has he been bad, the team simply does not exude the same type of confidence when he’s manning the crease. They’re just not the same Islanders – turtling on defense, not freewheeling as much, not playing that same up-tempo style we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s almost as if everyone in the building, including the Isles, knows they’re going to lose when he’s in net.
So, again, if you’re Capuano or goalie coach Mike Dunham, how on earth can you justify putting Johnson out there more often?
We’ve seen evidence of this lack of trust. A couple of times before the All-Star break, Johnson was on the bench for games that everyone thought he’d be a shoo-in to start. He only really plays when Halak’s exhausted or injured.
As I mentioned, the biggest concern here is Halak, because the Islanders cannot afford for him to be zonked out by the time the playoffs come around. If he played in every game from here on he’d have 69 appearances. Even if Johnson made four or five starts, Halak, who has never appeared in more than 57 games in a season, would still stand to be overworked. That could have a negative impact in April and May.
Don’t believe me? Look across the East River and see the difference in Henrik Lundqvist’s playoff performances over the last few seasons, compared to years prior. The key factor: games played. He was playing more than 70 games earlier on, and as a result, he was visibly burnt out in the second and third rounds of the playoffs. Last year, he appeared in 63 games and went to the Stanley Cup Final.
This is something the Islanders have to figure out, preferably by acquiring a more reliable backup goaltender, in order to allow Halak to get the necessary rest down the stretch so that he can stay fresh for the playoffs, and so that the Isles don’t stumble into the postseason on a low, just because Johnson had to play.
You want to go into the playoffs red-hot, firing on all cylinders. That simply will not happen if Johnson’s the guy playing while Halak cools off.
And what happens if Halak gets injured? If Lundqvist is hurt (as he is right now), the Rangers aren’t going to spiral out of control with Cam Talbot in net. The Islanders just do not have that security blanket.
Backup goaltenders do not cost that much on the trade market. Snow needs to go out and find one, before this actually becomes an issue.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI