By Jeff Capellini
What a mess this is turning into.
Not long ago, the Islanders were cruising right along. They were a fun team that scored a ton of goals and played the type of style that harkened back to decades ago, when fire-wagon hockey was all the rage.
Up and down the ice they’d go. Fans would get their money’s worth.
Now, the Isles can’t seem to get out of their own way and the paying public has every right to be muttering, “Here we go again.”
The Islanders’ offense has hit a lull, and their defense has shown very few, if any, signs that it will be at the very least average any time soon.
Yes, the Isles have suffered some injuries. The long-term loss of defenseman Calvin de Haan, one of the only reliable defensive players they have, was a punch to the gut, one that could have repercussions for the remainder of the season. Their current situation, being down Johnny Boychuk in addition to de Haan, hasn’t helped matters. The good news is Boychuk practiced Wednesday, so it’s at least possible he could rejoin the team in time for Thursday’s game at Philadelphia, if not shortly after.
But even with Boychuk healthy, the Islanders have been simply brutal in their own end. A lot of the blame has fallen on goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss, but in fairness to Halak, he hasn’t been the problem lately, even though the Isles continue to give up four, five, six goals a night.
Once threatening for the Metropolitan Division lead, the Islanders (20-16-4) started Wednesday even on points with eighth-place Carolina in the Eastern Conference standings. The Hurricanes have a game in hand, so they technically own the second wild-card spot.
The Isles have been outscored 15-4 during their current three-game losing streak and are 5-9-2 since Dec. 1.
The last two games have been alarming, to say the least. The Isles probably deserved a better fate in Winnipeg on Friday, but came away with nothing thanks to a 42-save effort by Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck. One would have figured they would have used that frustration in their next game against Colorado on Sunday.
The Avalanche wiped the ice with the seemingly uninterested Islanders, 6-1. That outcome should have set off alarm bells because it was, by my count, the fifth or sixth time this season this team simply didn’t show up. I mean, teams have off nights where they look like they couldn’t give a damn, but good teams have very few of them. Not half a dozen or so in less than half a season.
Most of the time, the Islanders have followed an absolute stinker with a very good effort, but when they hit the ice Tuesday at home against Boston, they played on their heels all night before eventually collapsing in the third period. Of course, the Bruins deserve credit because they stymied the Isles in much the same way they did Dec. 9 in a 3-1 win at TD Garden.
But the Islanders have largely been a different team at home this season, or at least they were. They used to beat opponents soundly with relentless offensive zone pressure and counter-attacking speed. But lately — the Isles have won just four of their last nine (4-4-1) at Barclays Center following an 8-0-2 start — they just haven’t been the same team.
We can come up with countless rationales as to why a very good start by a young and exciting group has turned into mediocrity by what is essentially a .500 club. But the bottom line is everyone is at fault.
Doug Weight has to prove he can coach defense, or at the very least light a fire under his assistants so that they get the message across. The players need to pay better attention to the details and, more importantly, actually execute the plans regardless of where and when the games are being played.
The goaltending? It is what it is. Halak appears to be the No. 1 now and has been better of late, but he’s proving he’s just not a guy who can steal games anywhere near as consistently as this team needs. Greiss has been brutal, but odds are Weight will turn back to him at some point, if for no other reason than to prevent Halak from being played into the ground.
Now, to be fair, the team-wide defensive issues are not the sole reason why the Isles are sliding backward. Weight used to roll four lines with impunity, mostly because he was getting at least some production from all four. Now he’s doing it simply to avoid killing the top two.
John Tavares and Josh Bailey are probably going to challenge 90-100 points. Anders Lee will likely get his 40 goals. Mathew Barzal will continue to be a wizard out there and will be in the running for the Calder Trophy the rest of the way. Jordan Eberle is justifying general manager Garth Snow’s offseason trade almost every night. Andrew Ladd is a fine second-line winger, albeit overpaid.
But after those six guys, this team has next to nothing. Brock Nelson is now the official spokesperson for milk cartons. How a player with his ability disappears as often as he does is beyond me. He will soon replace Josh Bailey as the most abused Islander on social media if he keep this up. Nelson, who almost any hockey follower will tell you has 30-goal ability, has one assist in his last 10 games and only four goals since Oct. 24. Going MIA for long stretches has become a seasonal thing with this guy.
Veterans Cal Clutterbuck and Jason Chimera, players I have the utmost respect for, have basically done nothing offensively all season. They have combined for six goals. Even Nelson has more.
Anthony Beauvillier, who showed flashes during his rookie season as a 19-year-old, has found the sledding much more difficult as a sophomore. He finished with 24 points in 2016-17, but has just seven this season and was recently shipped to AHL Bridgeport.
And as for Josh Ho-Sang, yeah, he will likely benefit from his time in the minors, but can he be any worse than the Islanders’ current group of bottom-six forwards?
The Isles have 42 games left to make something of this season, but they won’t unless they all get on the same page. I still believe you’re more likely to see a UFO land on the roof of Barclays Center than you are of seeing some season-saving trade by Snow. This team’s predicament on paper is hardly dire.
It only feels that way.
But every last player and coach has to do his part, or this team is going nowhere.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN