Chain Reaction: How do the Islanders make less of a 5-on-5 mess?

Given some recent discussions here, I was going to try to tackle the Islanders defense today -- to try to decipher which under-performing blueliners are hopeless and which are a victim of circumstance but still have something to offer in the right situation. Given all the injuries and lineup inconsistency last year, though, I think we need to wait for some more data from this year.

That's one of the fun things about this game: So many moving parts, that stats -- even advanced stats -- only give us a hint of what's going on until after a lot of it's already happened. There are multiple chicken-or-egg scenarios, such as how someone's traditional offense or defense is altered by the effects of backchecking forwards and pinching defensemen. (And at this early stage, injuries, illness, luck and a fight with the girlfriend easily skew things.)

Mark Streit (or even more so, Chris Pronger) can make any pedestrian defensive partner look solid. That can change their rate stats, which can lead you to think they're something they're not. For example Andy Sutton, viewed by several fans to have been good in his brief between-injury moments last year, also benefited from being paired largely with Streit at that time, giving him the best quality of teammate rating [explanation here] on the team.

Which isn't to say he is useless. If a defenseman plays ably next to Streit, whether he's Sutton or Bruno Gervais (salary concerns aside), he's doing his job. The key is to find blueliners who can anchor other pairings -- or absent any non-Streit anchors, blueline pairings that are at least good enough to get by. As I whined all summer long, I don't think the Isles have that, and I hope Garth Snow doesn't either and is instead just playing out the existing contracts.

That's my blueline spiel for now. But I mention it here because that domino effect of receding talent is also what's ailing the Islanders forward corps: There are too many guys who need an anchor (i.e. Kyle Okposo or John Tavares) to be effective, and it's not even clear which ones are best at being that supporting part.

Early season results don't say much:


GP G A P +/- PIM PPPts ESPts TOI EStoi SOG PCT
2009 - Sean Bergenheim 8 0 0 0 -5 4 0 0 14:23 12:15 15 0.0
2009 - Josh Bailey 8 1 1 2 -1 0 0 1 15:27 11:43 8 12.5
2009 - Blake Comeau 7 0 2 2 -1 4 0 2 16:17 13:14 11 0.0
2009 - Rob Schremp 6 0 1 1 -3 4 1 0 12:56 10:48 12 0.0
2009 - Jon Sim 6 1 0 1 -5 0 1 0 14:36 11:26 8 12.5

Before damning these players for their inability to score, first consider the powerplay: This team is powerplay-dependent, but it's not going to get ample powerplay opportunities unless its 5-on-5 play presses the other team into taking penalties. I'd love for Sean Bergenheim or Blake Comeau or Jeff Tambellini or Rob Schremp to score, but they don't seem much capable of that 5-on-5, and they're not (outside of Schremp) getting PP time. So in that sense, the zeros in their stats columns aren't the end of the world.

[Four of Matt Moulson's eight points have been at even strength. Three of Kyle Okposo's six have. Only two of John Tavares's seven have been. No other forward has more than two points. That's what we're dealing with.]

If You're Not A Sniper, At Least Be a Pain

So Comeau, Bergenheim and friends haven't scored. But you might say at least Bergenheim has drawn four penalties (and taken two). That's a better differential than anyone other than Okposo (1 taken, 6 drawn).

Again, it's early, and refs make mistakes. But you might note that last year, despite the occasional dumb penalty taken, Bergenheim drew 20 and took 13, putting him in Okposo territory (20 taken, 11 drawn). Look at the whole list, and you see Frans Nielsen drew 18 while taking just 6 -- I'm telling you, that Dane has hockey sense -- while Blake Comeau was even at 8-8.

Now, last night in Montreal was a disastrous display of poor passing, poor breakouts, poor clearances, poor decisions, and poor penalties. You have to grant that they won't be that bad all the time. Throw it out.

Press, Trap or Die Trying

But what's the key to stealing wins here and there to make this year interesting? Smart, assertive play at 5-on-5. Once again, the Islanders are near the bottom at 5-on-5 goals for/goals against. At .50, they're better than only Minnesota and Florida, and even with Toronto.

If they're not going to be a scoring threat beyond Moulson/Tavares/Okposo -- and maybe Nielsen's return to health alters that a bit -- then they need to at least be difficult to play against. They need to force mistakes, they need to be annoying, they need to force the other team to put Tavares, Moulson, Okposo, Streit and Doug Weight out there 5-on-4.

And of course, they need the goalies to step up to cover the rest.

But oh, the domino of variables: Goalies can't cover if you're always under siege. Forwards can't score if the defense can't get the puck out nor feed it to them in stride. The defense can't get the puck out if the forwards aren't capable of helping. Forwards can't force penalties at 5-on-5 if they're, by and large, just not that good. Around and around it goes when you lack the overall talent to beat better teams.

The alternative is to ask Scott Gordon to be someone he's not. To ask him to go all Lemaire with this team and defend their way to a few more wins. If this were 2002, I'd say sure! Playoffs or bust!!!1

But two summers ago, this franchise finally made the decision to blow things up and start over. If there's any time to see an experiment through, it's now. If there's any hope for long-term success, they need to stick with a plan rather than Lemaire their way to a 10th-place spot in the East. I'd rather Gordon keep pushing his aggressive system -- which many players have said is hardly unique -- to make sure the kids who will be here for years are well-versed in it, while weeding out the riff-raff who are not long for this place.

It's painful. It's often not pretty (boy though, when it clicks on the good nights, it's a joy). But it's a rebuild. Given available resources and the short-sighted decisions of the past, it's the only way I see forward.

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