Islanders Analysis: 5-on-5 and the Bottom Six

All hands on deck.

Something Jack Capuano said as quoted in the Post's season preview at the beginning of the month looms in the background of the Islanders 3-3 start:

"To me, [making the playoffs] is about health, goaltending and special teams," Capuano said.

The Islanders have gotten all three thus far, and it's a big reason they're somewhat fortunately at .500. The alarm, if you can have alarm after six games, is that the other phase -- 5-on-5 -- has been underwhelming. They have not lost a game because of goaltending nor special teams -- rather, their wins are a tribute to those. But they have lost games by being outplayed 5-on-5, including both games on the Florida swing.

Their strong second half last season did feature much improved 5-on-5 play, so there's hope here. But between lines and tactics, it needs figuring out if they're going to take a step forward this season. Six of their next eight opponents can eat them alive if they don't.

Capuano said after the Florida loss that he didn't think 5-on-5 was too bad in that game; I don't agree, though it's possible he was referring to the top two lines showing some life -- the Michael Grabner/Frans Nielsen/Kyle Okposo line being overdue there.

The "It's only six games" caveat definitely applies, but nonetheless this is what we have so far: The Islanders are third from the bottom (above only the Rangers and Predators) at generating shots 5-on-5, with 23.1 per 60 minutes. They've allowed 30.9 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which ranks a little better (again right next to the Rangers, and better than the Preds and six others).

That's based on a scant 275 total minutes of 5-on-5 play though (so roughly four-and-a-half 60 minute segments). Independent of what we've observed, those shot figures do reflect their weakness in the opening weeks of the season, which included a favorable four-game homestand and a road visit to two struggling teams.

I'm not too worried about the top two lines, because if those aren't going to work then the Islanders have unfixable problems for 2011-12 which would require a deeper rethinking of things. But both demonstrated enough last season to indicate they'll be fine.

 

Bottom Six Options

More urgently for now, it's the recurring refrain: The bottom-six forwards, with enigmas (Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau) and specialists (Jay Pandolfo, Brian Rolston, Trevor Gillies), make it difficult to establish anything a coach can feel good about sending out every five shifts or so. I give Matt Martin a pass for effort because he's engaged out there and learning, but his abilities may still be too narrow in scope to handle bouncing between the 4th and 3rd line as Gillies' weaknesses warrant.

Now, bottom six players are bottom six for a reason. They're not supposed to be outscoring the oppositions best. But they do need to hold their own, keep the direction of play headed the right way, and pop in the occasional goal. (That's why it's not Comeau or Bailey's lack of goals that's the explicit complaint with them -- it's the lack of offensive pressure generated.)

Anyway, this isn't just an effort thing; it's a tactical execution thing. Jack Capuano desires players who are able to deploy a few different attacking styles and defensive schemes depending on the opponent and score. That means adapting to the opponent's defense as well, and against the Lightning and Panthers the Isles were slow to do that. They need to be able to do that if they're not going to rely strictly on the home line matching advantage.

The hopeful news is these challenges can happen to a team -- any team -- at any stage of the season. (Undefeated Detroit was slaughtered by Washington 7-1. But of course ... goaltending was a big factor.) The Isles can figure this out or figure out what moves are needed to address it. Many a team has gotten through struggling times with a little goaltending and special teams love.

And though I've focused on the forwards, hockey is a game of several little decisions and actions affecting everything else: Gillies affects where the other forwards play, Bailey and Comeau affect whoever ride with them, Mike Mottau and Mark Eaton limit each other and in turn limit their forwards (who may in turn limit them, and on and on) ... and Evgeni Nabokov and Al Montoya affects their own otherwise outstanding efforts when they leave the net to pass to the other team, as each did in their respective Florida starts.

To that end, Capuano faces a few decisions heading into the Penguins home-and-home:

  • Forwards: When Brian Rolston returns, does Capuano keep "message" scratching a regular, or scratch Gillies against last year's Friday Fight Fest foe? I don't think the 5-on-5 ills and bottom-six issues can withstand the disruption Gillies' few shifts per game creates right now, but you never know what will happen against the Penguins.
  • Defense: The Jurcina Anomaly was more anomaly than real factor last season, but it does point to one thing: Milan Jurcina is better than, say, Mike Mottau. If Jurcina comes back healthy, it pushes a weaker defenseman out. It improves depth, degree by degree.
  • Goaltending: Al Montoya and Evgeni Nabokov have been very good so far. No need to introduce another variable right now ... right?

Sorry to rehash what many have discussed here in comments over the last few days, but these themes bear airing out to the non-commenting reader. Six games in, special teams, goaltending and health have been on the Islanders' side. There's one more area that needs attention.

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