The New York Islanders have finally staggered to the NHL's first quarter pole, reaching that mark after all but one of their NHL brethren who have already played 22, 23, even 25 games.
(Granted, 82 games does not divide well into quarters, but what would media coverage and human thought be if it did not force patterns upon life, creating shopping extravaganzas out of family holidays? The line between unseating indigenous people to celebrating with a gluttonous turkey feast to digesting it with a gratuitous HD TV for that one bedroom that is still tragically bare is, well, as American as Mike Modano.)
This point on the calendar, and that shopping holiday, is traditionally when NHL teams re-assess who they are and NHL fans re-asses whether late night Predators at Ducks games would be better seen on 50 inches instead of 46. Which is probably why this morning brings news of the second and third coaching changes of the NHL season.
The Islanders did the coaching change trick last year, so chances are they won't return to that well this soon if they can possibly avoid it. (Believe it or not, Jack Capuano is now only the 10th newest coach in the NHL. [h/t to a reader for pointing out we butchered that tenure factoid earlier.]) But when the coach cannot take the fall (yet), that means taking a hard look at the pieces he was given to deploy -- and the piece he preferred not to. Here's a rundown of the disappointment, and some of the luck and inherent failings that may be behind them.
The Class Leaders
John Tavares: Tavares worked on his skating over the summer and it shows. I've never focused my sights on a now-21-year-old as much as I have this one, but it's really remarkable how much better he moves, creates space for himself, and fends off checkers now compared to last season. His start was excellent, with 16 points in 16 games, but he's slumped lately, going five games without a point and 10 games without a goal.
Opponents clearly know to focus on him, as the pre-game Dan Bylsma strategy talk outlined all too well, so the going will be tough. Facing the toughest competition every night, slumps like this will happen. But he's one of the few players on the roster who gets a pass for his first quarter.
P.A. Parenteau: Parenteau really was summer 2010's Matt Moulson. He's second on the team in points again, and as he showed with the setup of Moulson's goal on Saturday, that's not just due to him playing with Tavares. (Tavares wasn't even on the ice.) Parenteau is a good possession player and one of the few Islanders forwards who "brings it" every night, including in battles along the boards.
Sure, everyone would like to have elite wingers for young Tavares, but Parenteau is not the problem. The effort and possession he brings would be a help to any forward line.
Matt Moulson: Moulson has had several quiet nights this year, though he is the type of player you don't notice except when he's crashing the net or sneaking shots off like the aforementioned goal versus the Devils. With seven goals he's again on pace to hit the roughly 30-goal range.
Frans Nielsen: Stop me if you've heard this before: Nielsen is the only Islander on the "plus" side of the plus/minus ledger. Still, it hasn't been quite the same for Nielsen in his walk year, as his line with Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo struggled to recapture last season's magic. Okposo's awful start probably fed that, but part of the blame may be on Jack Capuano trying to use him in more offensive situations -- not a bad bet, honestly (Nielsen has put up 4-6-10, Grabner 7-4-11) -- but an experiment that hasn't paid off for the team in the first 21 games. His ice time dropped some (from 17:45 to 17:12) and PK time did as well, perhaps in an effort to use more Jay Pandolfo-types in the PK role and free up Nielsen and friends.
Michael Grabner: When the worst thing you can say about a forward is that he doesn't convert on enough of his breakaways, then he's doing alright. At even strength and on the PK, Grabner is a force at both ends. His speed forces defensemen to panic and catches turnover-makers, whether they be rookie defensemen or men on 13-year deals, off guard. He also has 7 goals, which isn't too shabby on a team that barely manages two per game.
Travis Hamonic: Facing the toughest competition and having the highest non-Streit Corsi on the blueline, Hamonic has been the Islanders' best defenseman. This claim, if you accept its validity, is a reflection of how special he is, of how the rebuild might have some true gems, and how the supporting cast has fallen short.
Al Montoya: Montoya grabbed his opportunity last season, maximizing 20 games into a one-year deal. Jack Capuano's "gut" got Montoya the first run of the starts in the Islanders three-goalie rotation, and even after long forced and injury layoffs Montoya returned to the lineup to shine each time. It's been tough getting all three goalies a fair shot, but after 21 games even the Islanders TV broadcasters are singing his praises and citing his credentials to get the next start.
The Victoria Jackson 'Twois Pretty Good Too'
Mark Streit: Slower? Not as strong? Same old Streit? It's hard to tell after 21 games partnered mostly with Steve Staios. He sung Staois' praises in the early going, which is either just a captain being a captain or a player being complicit in a slower, penalty-prone partner holding him up. The idea that stay-at-home Staios (except when he's making bad reads/pinches that get him caught up ice) can free up Streit for offensive forays is sound in theory. But a better partner than Staios is needed to truly let Streit excel.
Matt Martin: Simply, he has done everything asked, including PK duty and bouncing from line to line without ill effect. With Pandolfo Martin gets the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts on the team, yet Martin has a positive Corsi Rel. Still piling up the hits in that shady "stat" category, he's doing it smarter this year, leaving the flow of play less often to deliver thundering hits. He's also noticeably avoiding situations where a full "finish your check!" demolition could get him a Shanaban. Smarter play all around. Good evolution. You hope he can be penciled in as a plus fourth liner on a strong Islanders team some day.
Andrew MacDonald: The amount of "maintenance" days MacDonald has taken probably reflects the continued recovery from offseason hip surgery, which also delayed his game debut during preseason. His numbers are still solid with Hamonic and he may be getting near the "old MacDonald" we knew, but it's been an uneven first quarter.
Evgeni Nabokov: Talking about making the most of an awkward situation of your own making. Nabokov has been the good solider in camp (note: His career may have depended on it) and accepted his starts when they came. A 1-5 record is not fair and the .910 save percentage is probably a better reflection. Very good in a few games, good enough in others, he hasn't been the problem.
Kyle Okposo: He signed a five-year extension over the summer, and yet by November he'd been scratched three straight games. That sums up his first quarter quite well. Recent games have been better, and the hopeful fan might see the signs of a return to form of that FNGO line. Maybe Okposo will even start putting up more shots on goal than Nielsen.
Brian Rolston: Rolston has looked adequate in a few games with Josh Bailey and David Ullstrom, so he only shares part of the blame for the miserable ineffectiveness of the season-opening combo of him, Bailey and the castaway Blake Comeau.
But during the worst Islanders games, Rolston's play and failures in fundamentals were as culpable as any other "passengers" -- and that's not what you bring in an experienced veteran for. He should be a leader and example-setter on the ice, every game, so seeing him fail to get a puck in deep or cover the back door or blast a shot wide and ringing around the glass draws the ire of fans who are eager to scapegoat the ex-Devil. One of the issues might be Capuano using him too much: His 15:13 per game includes 2:22 of PP and even 0:50 on the PK. Add to it close-and-late situations and you see why Isles fans pile on the 38-year-old. That said, his Corsi Rel is among the leaders on the team, though that's fair to expect when he's getting 60% of his faceoff starts in the offensive zone (as is Corsi Rel leader Parenteau).
Marty Reasoner: Reasoner hasn't been used as an outright replacement for Zenon Konopka, which is interesting. He is used for a higher percentage of defensive zone draws, but his quality of competition has been light, his total time on ice just 12:45 per game. Those are peripheral reasons why he's provided no bonus offense, but his performance has also led Capuano to scratch him for three games. More should be expected of Reasoner, but more should be expected of how Capuano deploys his assets, too. This is one of those situations that's intriguing after one quarter and should have more light shed by the halfway mark.
Josh Bailey: Bailey too has looked modestly better since being separated from Comeau, but he is not excused from his bad start anymore than Rolston or Comeau. (And honestly, any one of them could rebound after a bad first quarter, but recent history would put that bet on the now departed Comeau.) Bailey's backbreaking turnover in the Rangers game sticks out as symbolic of mental mistakes, but if he turns it around at age 22 that will be seen as lessons attained on the learning curve.
Jay Pandolfo: Pandolfo isn't actually a slacker; he's just a training camp tryout doing what he can on the fourth line and PK. Apparently recovered from the shoulder injury that had him out of hockey for most of 2010-11, he is a stopgap and should be seen as such. Now he's out with a broken foot, so another body will take his place.
Steve Staios: Like Pandolfo, Staios isn't actually a slacker; the 38-year-old training camp invite is doing everything in his power. Sometimes that's doing too much, whether it be an ill-advised read that gets him caught up ice or what has become an all too predictable penalty. He has a team-high 11 minors. (Context: Streit has 8, Hamonic has 7, but Staios' penalties taken per 60 minutes is 1.8, vastly higher than his blueline mates.)
Mark Eaton: Eaton is the best of the three Islanders third-pair candidates, which mean Eaton is in the unfortunate role of carrying someone else. His Corsi Rel is the lowest among blueliners not named Mottau, but when you see his extremely slanted percentage of D-zone starts you understand why. He is asked to do a lot but is probably better off as the complement to a better partner rather than as the lead guy. An MCL injury puts him on the shelf for 4-6 weeks now and cries out for a callup or trade to improve the third pairing.
Milan Jurcina: Jurcina is what he is and has always been: A guy with an enticingly hard shot from the blueline and an enticingly big body who uses neither as often and as wisely as you'd like. He can still make wonderful plays and satisfying hits in his role, but also makes mistakes that keep him on the third pair and even occasionally scratched for Mottau.
Mike Mottau: If you hate advanced/micro stats and don't want to hear nothing about no Corsi, just do yourself a favor and look at this Behind the Net link. [Note: As garik points out in comments, if you switch the setting to "all teams" and not just the Islanders, you'll see Mottau at the bottom of all NHL defensemen.] That's Mottau, astronomically at the bottom of relative Corsi -- and with light competition and over 50% offensive zone starts. It's not just the memorable turnovers talking; Mottau has been awful.
Rick DiPietro: I am from the Church of Don't Judge Goalies in Small Samples, but DiPietro has done nothing to change perception of his post-surgery abilities in seven appearances and five starts thus far. His save percentage is down around .885 again, and his insistence on playing the puck even when it's best to use caution has not changed. It has put his defensemen in the position to get creamed, and it has led to as many turnovers as it has nice half-ice assists. At this point, DiPietro just needs to show he can be a healthy and adequate backup in this league, but at the moment his performance is third behind Nabokov and far behind Montoya.
Trevor Gillies, Micheal Haley: Each has three games. Gillies was never even welcomed to a fight -- a smart move on the part of his would-be combatants -- and Haley was called up by request of Capuano. Haley's a better all-around player than Gillies, so this is a start.
David Ullstrom, Nino Niederreiter: Ullstrom has looked promising enough in four games -- he's no passenger -- and Niederreiter was likewise engaged, if a little overwhelmed (and minus-4) in his three games. To me Niederreiter still has to show enough to prove he should be kept around at age 19 rather than returned to juniors for more.
Blake Comeau: Waiving him was selling low on a player and it's curious that both Garth Snow and Capuano got to that point of frustration with him. But the fact no team offered a pick for him and his goose egg on the season -- even given his lack of special teams time -- tells you no one was impressed. His previous stats tell you this is the kind of move the team will regret. His at times frustrating play -- and none more so than this, his fifth season -- tells you why he's someone else's enigma now.
And that, folks, is how you end up at 6-11-4. The Islanders have had bad shooting luck -- an unsustainably league-worst 6.9% -- and haven't benefited from any extra time coin-flip wins. Both are likely to rebound a bit and make the team look better through the rest of the season. But even with that luck, rather than a bottom-third team playing well enough to stir playoff hopes, they're a bottom-five team looking to stir bottom-third hopes.
When asked to sum up the status in a nutshell, I tell people the better pieces of the rebuild aren't here yet and the stopgaps have not been good enough to get the job done. The blueline was a concern coming in -- Mark Katic's injury making it worse, but otherwise they've had good health luck -- and the young and old forwards asked to take the next step have actually regressed in the first 21 games.
Too few players have performed up to expectations, those expectations were too high to begin with for too many players, and the coach could probably use some of them in smarter, more specialized roles to scratch out more wins.
Will any of that change over the rest of the season? I suspect that's why we tune in, addicted through each high and low.