This item ran on the Backhand Shelf blog yesterday while we were busily grousing about Evander "Freight Train" Kane laying tracks through Al Montoya's crease last night: top improvements and declines in the standings from last year to this.
This is good news. Three was no Woevember swoon, no 1-17-3 nightmare, no sacked coach, and thus far the Isles have handled injury setbacks with aplomb. Despite being thin on the blue line, painfully young in many other places, and distressingly old in a few key locations, this is still a more resiliant and skilled team than it was a year ago, and in the stress we feel over lost opportunities for wins in the first third of the year, there is still a lot to be hopeful for. The Isles are four full wins better over their first 30 games this year - real wins, moved out of the middle "nothing to show for it" column and into the "everybody can have two points!" column.
How much more hopeful can we be, moving forward? Lets look at a few scenarios.
Scenario One: DOOOOOOOOM - otherwise known as Teh Narrative, as best outlined last year by Adam Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch. The Blue Jackets have imploded to such an extent that he has handed off Teh Narrative to ESPN.com, who have been not-so-helpfully snarking the Isles' progress. Case in point - we have hurt goalies and are last in our division for the "umpteenth straight year" according to their most recent poll. Apparently, "umpteen" means "five" since the Isles made the 2007 playoffs, and at the 2008 All-Star break, had a durable, promising starting goalkeeper.
Well, let's say that Burnside turns out to have stumbled into something here. Another disastrous stretch would sink the Isles utterly out of sight, and they could finish worse than last season's 30-39-13 overall record.
Scenario Two: Same ol' same ol' - this is where the Isles just sort of hobble along, suffering their growing pains, and play something like .500-ish hockey the rest of the way. They would finish within a point or two of the same +8 they have now, say at 33-38-11.
From here Garth Snow would face some major questions. Would they make a big push for a big-ticket free agent, or cash in some of their propsect chips for something other than a stopgap veteran? Despite current appearances, Moulsons, Grabners, Montoyas, and Nabokovs don't fall from the heavens regularly. It's a great advantage to have gotten four strong assets for sofa-cushion change (total cost: one sixth-round pick)... it's not going to get the whole job done by itself. So another middling result would put a lot of pressure on the Islanders to accelerate their rebuild somewhat.
Scenario Three: Keeping up the Pace - This is where the Isles match their four-win improvement over the rest of the season... and remember that they were much improved over the rest of last season as well. That would boost them from 24-21-7 to finish last year, to 28-17-7 to finish this one. That is very good hockey, a full-year pace of 99 points; here it would give the Isles a hypothetical record of 38-31-13, good for 89 points. In the past four seasons, that total would be good for anything from 20th to 17th overall in the league; in 2010, it would have given the Isles the seventh playoff seed in the East.
If the Islanders were doing something like this, then the pressure would be even greater on Snow to make a move to get the Isles those extra five points that would move their playoff odds from "distant" to "reasonable."
Scenario Four: The Leap - doe-eyed optimists, of the sort that had the Isles pegged as acontender for a bottom-seed this season (::cough like me cough:::), are probably skipping down to the end and smiling at this thought right now. Everything would have to break well in this unlikely situation: first, the Isles' play after Woevember last season as a baseline; second, the improvement of this season coming on top of that, instead of their current PPG pace; third, their improvement from last year to this continuing at the same pace for the whole year. Four wins in 30 games works to roughly seven wins in 52, so the Isles would gain a total of 22 points over last season's total... they'd finish out 31-14-7 (that's one more win than they had all of last season) to end the year at 41-28-13, which is 95 points and pretty much a guaranteed playoff berth.
Now, making this sort of leap might make Snow LESS likely to make a move, not more, since it would be coming primarily from internal improvement and they could stand pat more plausibly. Further, the pieces the Isles would probably want to move - Rolston and Nabokov - would be going to contenders and the return would probably be futures, not present help. And considering the state of the blue line, this is admittedly a hugely unlikey scenario anyway.
But that's why they play the games. A few of the advangages the current Isles have over last season are already apparent: John Tavares is better, Kyle Okposo looks full-recovered, Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau are keeping their pace, Travis Hamonic is turning into a really good defenseman, and the goaltending is better (if no less varied). Mark Streit, despite not being the same as he was two seasons ago, is actually playing instead of on season-long IR, so his contributions are already a net gain. The only real disappointments thus far have been the imported Isles - Blake Comeau, now COZOing in Calgary, was the lone returning Islander who really regressed.
For all the frustration of the year thus far, it is getting better. Holding onto those escaped points the rest of the way will make a huge difference - perhaps the difference between draft lottery speculation and playoff hockey at the Nassau Coliseum.