Brendan Witt is symbolic of the dilemma facing the Islanders this season: The caught-between-eras discomfort; the uncertainty over whether Scott Gordon's aggressive system is sustainable with anything but a Red Wings-level NHL roster; the question of how to build from here, when every position lacks depth.
The blueliner seen as the club's heart and soul in recent years -- and who was 12th in James Mirtle's "Rod Langway Award" ranking last season -- has looked lost in Gordon's system all season long, and every Islanders fan knows it. Kyle Okposo's incredible single-effort goal (video below) and Joey MacDonald's incredible 46 saves were last night's silver lining.
Devils' view over at In Lou We Trust
Kyle Okposo's single-handed powerplay goal: a work of beauty from start to finish
As if to drive this Witt point home, last night he took the penalty that allowed the Devils to finally pull ahead 3-2, in a game where they ended up outshooting the Islanders 50-25 and winning the faceoffs battle 50-22. (Funny to see the ever-bright official site call it, "Devils Sneak Past Islanders" when the outcome had a feel of inevitability to it, all the way down to Zach Parise again being the #1 slayer.) That's after the Islanders were outshot 39-25 the night before at home by the Kings.
I don't even think the issue was the Bridgeport pairing of Joe Callahan and Jack Hillen, who performed as expected for a third-pairing role. The issue is that, absent Mark Streit, the Islanders' glut of undersized #3-#4 defensemen get pushed up into too much ice time (although losing so many faceoffs certainly feeds the lopsided shot totals). Witt is the most obvious but not the only blueline problem. I believe it was Chris Botta who said scouts told him earlier this season what we all can observe: The only Islander blueliner who really fits Gordon's system is Streit; the only other one with a chance is Chris Campoli -- who Gordon has asked to take on Streit's powerplay role while Streit is hurt. (Campoli logged 18:41 last night, behind only Bruno Gervais' 20:15).
Witt is by far the most physical of the group, so we can forgive the minus-27 thanks to that stat's wonkiness. But it's glaring that several statistical measures indicate he's having as bad of a season as he looks like he's having out there: far more goals against per 60 minutes (5-on-5), more shots against, more shots attempted at his net. Among his teammates, only the injured Freddy Meyer provides company in that department. I'm not convinced he's done as an effective NHL defenseman, but I am convinced that, despite adjustments to Gordon's defensive gameplan since Christmas, Witt's just not going to be able to make it work here.
So is Gordon's style doomed, with or without Witt? Is Witt right to have said Gordon should change to fit his clearly subpar roster? (And indeed, Gordon has made adjustments.) Or does Gordon just need better personnel, starting at the blueline (one reason the rumblings about the Islanders looking at Hedman over Tavares may have weight)?
There is Hope
The beacon that tells me Gordon can make it work if given the right players?' Streit, the genius stroke of a free agent pickup.
Streit is not only an excellent power play weapon and even-strength puck rusher -- he's also a fine defensive 5-on-5 blueliner. By any measure, the Islanders' shots/goals for:against are better when he's on the ice. While Garth Snow cannot line up a blueline full of $4 million defensemen, there is hope that more Streit-wannabes could do something better than the current crop Gordon inherited.
While the Islanders clearly need forwards who can score, they at least have four youngsters you can imagine being part of a respectable top-six in the future (Beyond Okposo's goal, Blake Comeau had a great heads-up assist on Radek Martinek's goal). What they don't have is another steadying defenseman who can control play both defensively and through the breakout. A near-30-minute stud would be ideal, but even a second Streit would do wonders for steadying their game. Exploring whether Hillen or even Callahan might be improvements over the current corps is worth a shot.
We've Got Goaltending
Injuries aside, goaltending has not been an issue all season long. Joey MacDonald made a reel of highlight saves tonight -- truly, some very sick ones -- to keep the Islanders in it. And Yann Danis has been in fine form since winning Gordon's confidence.
But 39, 50 shots ... that's too much to ask of any goalie on a frequent basis.
Doug Weight Injured: The 'break' he needed?
With Doug Weight's knee injury last night, which did not look pretty, it's conceivable to see him on the shelf again until close to the trade deadline. Maybe that's the straw that prevents a trade and ignites a contract extension? I could almost live with a similar top-six next season (assuming continued growth by the kids) if the Islanders overhauled their blueline corps.
That's my closing thought for the night. We have some offensive seeds in place; we have a coach/system that can work and be entertaining. We just need more quarterbacks who can run this ship from goal line to goal line.