In some aspects last season, the Islanders had a really good season. Younger players stepped up, other players showed why they have huge upside and Dwayne Roloson had an unbelievable season. It's easy to just look at the standings, see the Islanders near the bottom of the standings and be disappointed. Looking at the West though, two teams from the West would have made the playoffs if they were in the East. The Ducks would have made the playoffs too, ahead of Montreal. So while the East struggles, there's hope for the Islanders.
When breaking down the Islanders stats, on the bright side it looks like the talent is there. Can the Islanders struggles be laid to rest at the coaches feet? I've defended Scott Gordon, especially this year during the 3-13 stretch when people seemed to come out of the woodwork against him. First off, you can't blame him for his first season. That was a team going into the season that couldn't decide whether to rebuild or try for the 8th seed. The struggles in net aside, it just wasn't a very good team. This year we have not only seen a lot of the offensive weapons develop, but Gordon also did a masterful job working in the AHL defensive replacements no matter who he was given. The team went from having 16 players in double digit negatives last season to only six this season. Of those six, two are no longer with the team. Despite these improvements there seem to be some humps that the team is struggling with, which if the players continue to improve in other aspects of the game, the finger can only be pointed at the coaches.
Under Gordon the Islanders have been great at home. They have compiled a 40-32-10 record at home in two seasons. At the same time they have struggled greatly away from Nassau going 20-52-10. With +12 wins at home this season as compared the the road the Islanders had the biggest disparity between home/away wins. This season the Islanders finished a +6 in goal differential at home, but a -50 when away. One reason for the difference? An already struggling Islanders Penalty Kill is even worse on the road. In giving up 44 PP goals against on the road this year, tied for most in the league with Toronto. No amount of talent is going to change the troubles on the road. It's a purely mental aspect of the game and at the end of the day the team has to stop the Jekyl and Hyde act to move forward.
Part of the Islanders struggle at home is their poor play in the Eastern Conference. At 24-31-9 the Islanders were the worst team in the East against the East this season. Their struggles against lesser teams means they also struggled against the Southeast. With a 8-9-3 record against the SE, the only teams in the East not to go .500 or better against the SE were in the Southeast division as both the Thrashers and Panthers finished with 8 wins within their division. Yet the Islanders went 9-7-4 against the Northeast, which sent four teams to the playoffs. Against the West the Islanders tied with the Sabres and Capitals for most wins against the West from the East. At 10-6-2 the Islanders had more wins against teams from the West then they did playing against Atlantic teams (7-15-2). It raises the question of whether familiarity with Gordon's system leads to teams finding successful counters.
The struggles with the power play seem to go back to the Islanders appearing to lack the ability to force the puck into the zone. When the Islanders dump the puck into the zone, they are hoping that a heavy forecheck in the offensive zone will cause defenders to make mistakes. Most defenders aren't used to being pressured when they are bringing the puck out of the zone. But the Islanders under Gordon look to pressure the defender in their offensive zone, hopefully causing a quick mistake. One problem with this is that on the power play the defender doesn't have to carry the puck out of the zone. He simply rifles the puck down the board to kill time on the penalty. Hopefully Gordon spent most of this season setting up his system, and now can concentrate on special teams.
The penalty kill struggled too, taking a step back from the previous season. Most of the troubles came on the road, as the Islanders were shorthanded 24 more times then at home, yet gave up double the amount of PP goals. Looking at Time on Ice stats, the same group of players were on the PK both home and away. Next season the top ten of average ice time while shorthanded is probably going to change. This years list in order (from 2:46 to 1:51 average a game) is Richard Park, Nate Thompson (Gone), Andy Sutton (Gone), Bruno Gervais, Radek Martinek, Brendan Witt (Mostly Gone), Jack Hillen, Blake Comeau, Frans Nielsen and Freddy Meyer. Hopefully during training camp Gordon works in new players to the PK and the unit picks up next year.
Despite the Flyers and Habs run through the playoffs, Gordon definitely deserves at least another full season. This year though the PP and PK both have to pick up. The hopeful edition of another top tier defensman will help both special teams. Development is good, but for the Islanders to continue improving they are going to have to play better away from home. Amazingly the last two Eastern Conference Winners replaced coaches during their coaches fourth season. There's a lot of hope for the playoffs next season, but I think at the very least what we need to see is improvement in special teams and away from home. If these playoffs proved anything, it's just that you have to get in. Anything can happen after that.