By Daniel Friedman
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All things considered, these past few months have been pretty good for the New York Islanders.
They’re currently in a playoff spot, occupying third place in the Metropolitan Division. They have a lot of depth and have shown – albeit inconsistently – that they can be a formidable hockey team.
They’ve also shown that they have things to work on, and contrary to popular belief, they are equipped to find solutions to most (if not all) of their issues.
As 2016 approaches, there are three key concerns about this Islanders team: a lack of even-strength scoring output (especially from the younger players), a dysfunctional power play and a defensive corps that hasn’t been involved enough in the offensive zone.
We’ll break these down individually, but there’s a common denominator among them.
Hockey is more than just a sport; it’s a delicate balancing act of chemistry, offense, defense, goaltending, coaching and more. People often try to simplify hockey, but it’s a very complex sport with lots of moving parts. Many factors go into a team’s success or failure.
I think many within the Isles’ ecosystem assume that someone who criticizes the coach thinks the players have done no wrong. This is a very closed-minded way of thinking. I also think that many assume the solution to every on-ice issue is that the players just have to be better, an equally narrow-minded approach.
No doubt this is aided by the fact that players often take full responsibility after a coach is fired, or express similar thoughts in response to other teams’ firings. The most recent example of this was Alex Ovechkin’s comments regarding the Penguins’ decision to let go of head coach Mike Johnston.
“A lot of times it’s not about coaches, it’s about players,” he said.
People were very quick to take those words and run with them, as if Ovechkin said, “it’s always on the players.”
That’s not what he said.
You also have to take into account that most players will always say the coach didn’t deserve to be fired, because that’s the mindset athletes have. It’s the same reason that a goalie will think every goal he gives up is his fault, even if it was the result of a defensive breakdown or an amazing deke.
Given time and more perspective, players realize there was more to it, in cases where that actually held true. There have been coaches who were undeservedly fired and coaches who were dismissed for good reason. Every situation is different.
This pertains to the Islanders, because when you look at the issues this team has had on offense over the past month or so, it’s very easy to draw a line in the sand and say “it’s all the coach’s fault,” or “the players need to wake up and start scoring.”
But the mistake being made here is drawing any lines at all.
Certainly, there were several players whose efforts were lacking. Anders Lee was a net-front presence who wasn’t going to the front of the net. Ryan Strome wasn’t showing as much creativity with the puck as he did last season. Brock Nelson was inconsistent. They were passing up shots and dumping pucks in.
At the same time, Jack Capuano had been dealing with Strome in a detrimental manner; scratching him, sending him down to the AHL and so on. It was almost as if Strome was so focused on not turning the puck over that he forgot about what makes him successful when it’s on his stick.
You can’t ask every forward to be Patrice Bergeron. Some guys have certain things that they do well and you just have to take the good with the bad. Strome is better defensively than he’s been to this point in the season, but the reality is that he’s going to make plays and do plenty of other things to help the team.
They’ve also invested too much time and resources into their young guns to just give up on them now. Last season, Strome had 50 points and Nelson had 42. Lee scored 25 goals. I have a hard time believing those guys suddenly forgot how to be productive.
What’s happened with the Isles this season reminds me a lot of the Capitals under Adam Oates a few years ago. Their forwards were all playing conservative hockey, and Oates constantly juggled his lines, which prevented Washington’s forwards from developing chemistry. It had a huge impact.
That’s what makes a coach like Barry Trotz so great; his ability to teach and promote defense in a way that doesn’t hamper offense. At the same time, there were certain players who needed to patch up holes in their games, and they’ve since done that. As a result, the Capitals are 28-6-2 and probably the most complete team in the league.
I think that you’re starting to see both player and coach make strides this time around.
Strome didn’t exactly come flying out of the gate upon his return to the big club, but Capuano has let things take their course. He hasn’t scratched him, and now it’s starting to pay dividends. He has points in three straight games and is making things happen in the offensive zone.
Additionally, Lee and Nelson each have three points in their last five games, which is a promising sign.
Capuano also reunited Lee with John Tavares, and both players have been rejuvenated ever since. Given the proper time to mesh, the Islanders have four lines that can form a lethal offense.
The Islanders have gotten much better defensively, but they’ve lost a bit of focus in the offensive zone – particularly on special teams. Killing penalties at a rate of 87.7 percent, the Isles are tied with Anaheim atop the NHL in that department. Conversely, they’re ranked 21st with the man advantage and are clicking at just 17.5 percent.
Here, too, we can find a solution that involves adjustments from both sides. The Isles are often too cute with the puck and always seem to wait for the perfect play, which generally doesn’t work out. However, perhaps certain personnel changes can be made and those units can be modified to produce better results.
A stingy defense and goaltending has kept the Isles in games, but defensemen need to start becoming more involved in the offense as well.
You’re starting to see more of that from Nick Leddy, and as responsible as Johnny Boychuk is without the puck, perhaps we expected too much from him in terms of point projections. That said, I think he’s still better than the 13 points he’s amassed this season.
As has been discussed in the past, calling up Ryan Pulock from Bridgeport could also help.
It’s all about finding the right balance between offense and defense, about knowing when to keep a tight leash on players and when to take off the training wheels. I do think the Islanders have the right pieces to work with on the current roster, but they need to be properly utilized.
All indications are that things are beginning to pick up. How they fare in 2016 will depend on whether or not that continues.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @bardownhowitzer.