By Daniel Friedman
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We’re nearing the 30-game mark, and a quick glance at the standings shows the Islanders in a good spot.
They’re sitting nicely with 37 points (16-8-5) and are right in the thick of the Metroplitan Division race. They’ve done this despite some pretty glaring issues and multiple distractions — Travis Hamonic’s trade request, impending unrestricted free agency for Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, and the demotion of Ryan Strome — and have managed to scrap points from games they should have lost outright.
The Isles haven’t exactly painted a Picasso. They’ve had to rely heavily on their goaltenders and have gotten a handful of their wins through the shootout.
One reason for that is they’re just not scoring enough. That’s a pretty shocking development, considering they were one of the top teams in the league in that category last season.
They’ve started trending downward from an offensive standpoint due to a combination of several factors.
Their defense has not been productive in the offensive zone, and it hasn’t joined the rush quite like it did last season. Johnny Boychuk has just 12 points, and Nick Leddy had just six until he broke out in Philadelphia. They need more production from their blueliners. It also hurts the forwards when defensemen aren’t getting involved in the rush or in transition enough, so there’s a bit of a trickle-down effect.
A defenseman’s primary responsibility is to do what the title suggests — to defend. And, to be sure, the Islanders’ defense has done that pretty well. But if the unit as a whole doesn’t get involved offensively, it can lead to some scoring issues, as we’ve seen.
That’s not to excuse the inconsistency and underperformance of certain forwards on the team. Mikhail Grabovski has been a massive disappointment, and more is needed from Anders Lee, who hasn’t been the type of nightmarish net-front presence he was last season.
If Grabovski can’t find his game, it might be time to explore potential replacements for him. The Isles certainly have the pieces to swing a deal for a viable alternative.
That aside, I think the kids — as in Strome, Lee and Brock Nelson — will get going. I’m not overly concerned. They’ve hit a bit of a wall, but that tends to happen early on in players’ careers, especially once opponents have more of a book on them, on their tendencies and weak spots. Now that the Isles’ youngsters have broken loose, the secret’s out. It’s up to them to make the necessary adjustments.
The Islanders aren’t struggling to score because they didn’t trade for T.J. Oshie. They’re not having trouble because John Tavares lacks a superstar winger. They’re struggling because they’re not doing the things that made their offense successful last season and that they’re fully capable of doing.
If you’re a one-line team, getting a winger for Tavares doesn’t fix that. It just makes you a better one-line team. That’s not going to help spread the wealth, which is really what the Isles need to do.
Coaching also plays a bit of a role here, as it has for some time. Head coach Jack Capuano is starting to leave his forward lines alone, which is giving them time to develop chemistry and starting to yield some positive results, but that process has certainly been delayed by all the constant juggling.
Starting 3-on-3 overtime with two defensemen and a forward also doesn’t seem like a great idea, unless those two defensemen are Erik Karlsson and PK Subban.
So, how have the Islanders stayed in the thick of the Metro Division? One word: Goaltending.
Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss have been nothing short of superb for this hockey club through 29 games. They’ve kept them in every one.
The good news is, you can get away with scoring less goals when the opposition is doing the same. The bad news is, that’s not a viable or necessarily sustainable long-term strategy.
That the Isles have been able to amass 37 points behind their goaltending and a few offensive standouts is impressive, and will only serve as a backbone for the team once it’s firing on all cylinders. It’s the sign of a good hockey team.
However, they need to figure this out before the bubble bursts, because Halak is many things but Carey Price he ain’t. He’s not the kind of goalie that can steal an entire season, as good as he is.
The Isles are also talented enough that they shouldn’t have to ask Halak to do that.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @bardownhowitzer