The New York Islanders began the second half of 2011-12 in a better place than what they saw at the end of a pretty miserable first quarter. Through the first 21 games the Islanders were 6-11-4, struggling to manage 2.0 goals per game and suffering some poor luck and execution with a 6.9% overall shooting percentage.
As expected, their shooting luck has rebounded -- they're up to 7.9% now -- their goal production has modestly improved to 2.36 per game, and along with that the second quarter offered some belated bright spots. The record in their second 21 games was a more cosmetically pleasing 10-9-2 (including three shootout wins, the kind of coin-flip luck that eluded them in the first quarter), but nowhere near strong enough to undo the damage of October and November. Nonetheless, you might see them headed closer to 20th overall than 30th.
Excluding last night's win (which was game #42, but which completed our second 21-game segment), the Islanders' first half record was 15-20-6. Another informative snapshot is in Torgo's 10-Game Chunks IV FanPost. Below is a rough grade of each of the individuals who contributed.
John Tavares: What a difference a year and a half makes. Where once John Tavares was youngster with dazzling skills but so, so much to learn at the NHL level, now he's gone from defensive liability to driver of play on just about every shift. The skating improvement over last year is nearly breath-taking. How it's freed him to create offense all over the ice and handle defensive responsibilities much better is just ... well, this is a pretty big development for the franchise going forward.
He's up to a point per game now -- including 29 even strength points among his 42 -- but his movement and persistent threat on the powerplay has also keyed that unit's climb to the top 10 in production (19.3% and 7th as of today).
With Tavares on an eight-game point streak, you should be prepared for another dry spell. But the good news is his skills and presence have been on display virtually every game, points or no points.
* * *
Matt Moulson: Tavares often sets him up, but quite simply Matt Moulson usually finishes. With 20 goals through the first half (another last night gave him 21 through 42 games), he's on pace for 40 rather than 30 goals. His current 18.4% shooting percentage is likely to come back down and reduce that pace, but barring injury he should still be good for yet another 30-goal season.
Cosmetic bonus: Moulson's +8 stands out on a team that's mostly still in the minus. His team-high PDO (team shooting percentage plus save percentage while on the ice) of 1015 is surely a factor for that +/- fortune, but so is his own shooting.
P.A. Parenteau: No longer on the first line but still a class leader and collecting points. Many who recognized Parenteau's skills aspired to see him on another line not because he's "not a true first-liner," but rather because he exhibited the puck possession skills and battle level that might help out some of the other Islanders lines. Once even leading the team in scoring, Parenteau had 35 points through the first half and added another pair last night.
This is couched in his still high level of offensive zone starts, but Parenteau's Corsi REL is still a team high (11.0).
Long-term, the Islanders probably penciled in other, younger, sniper-like wingers to audition next to Tavares, so a key was to confirm the suspicion that Parenteau can indeed help the team on other lines. He's shown that so far, he's a quality winger, and re-signing the pending UFA should be a priority: The Islanders have plenty of enticing forward prospects on the way; they do not have plenty of forwards who are quality NHL players today. The long-curve development of players like Josh Bailey and Nino Niederreiter should be a loud reminder that one in hand is worth two in the bush.
Travis Hamonic: Hamonic draws by far the toughest opposition every night. He's the go-to blueliner in critical situations. His 22:17 is second only to Andrew MacDonald and Mark Streit (and unlike Streit not inflated by gobs of powerplay time). His rate of penalties taken per 60 is not alarming. He's already a key fixture, a star of sorts. He's just 21 years old.
Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner: These two are considered together because they're a dynamic double-threat that isn't as obvious in a glance at the stat sheet. Much has been made of either slumping (and Grabner's groin injury may have been a factor), yet after 41 games they still face the toughest competition of Isles forwards and still come out ahead. Add to it their dangerous PK duties and they are critical components of this team.
You'd still like Grabner to convert more of his breakaways -- but don't lose sight of the marvel that he creates so many noticeable chances in the first place -- and you'd still like Nielsen to shoot more, but the record shows they're often busy keeping the opponent's best from getting shots and they're doing that pretty well.
Matt Martin: He could've been in the "class leaders" section last quarter, and all he's done is continue to strike that balance between physical irritant and responsible hockey player: His 10 points (5g, 5a) are a bonus, but his transformation from someone who hits everything he can reach to someone who hits everything reasonable -- without risking suspension -- has been fantastic. Multiple times he's demonstrated how he's paid attention to the line drawn by Brendan Shanahan. What's even better, this toe-ing the line, Martin's discipline, and Ben Eager's foolishness pretty much created the 4-1 win over the Oilers.
Martin's level-headedness and willingness to fight has helped the Islanders avoid wasting a lineup spot on additional brutality on most nights this season.
* * *
Victoria Jackson 'Twois Pretty Good Too'
Kyle Okposo: From a disappointing first quarter and a spell in the Capuano Scratch Bin, to another turn opposite Tavares and Moulson. He's driving the net more, working the boards better, and nine of his 11 goals have come since the end of that first quarter. No matter the line and no matter the goal output, this is the level of engagement to be demanded of Okposo.
Mark Streit: It's been an off year for Streit -- who admits his return from a year-plus on the shelf has been harder than he expected -- but it's not clear how much of his difficulty has been the injury rebound, how much has been age, how much has been trying to do too much, and how much has been the blueline partners he must carry. What is clear is some of his mistakes have been completely his own doing -- whether from risky decisions or lost puck battles.
That said, Streit still has 23 points on 21 assists and he's looked better as the season has progressed. He gets the choicest offensive zone starts, so his Corsi Rel leadership (8.0) among the team's blueliners is to be expected. He's still essential and there's still hope he'll be better. All told, while more is expected, Streit's been pretty good too.
Andrew MacDonald: The third in the Islanders' trio of quality blueliners, MacDonald has also had an uneven year post-surgery (hip). Mostly playing next to Hamonic at EV and on the PK, you might hope MacDonald would collect a few more points with his 1:34 of mostly second-unit PP time.
Al Montoya and Evgeni Nabokov: Both resurrected goalie careers have been important this season, sometimes providing needed steady goaltending and sometimes creating the almost expected turmoil thanks to stints on IR. Montoya's .926 Even Strength save percentage is about top 20 among goalies with 15 or more appearances. Nabokov's .905 EV Save% is considerably worse in his 20 games. But these figures are volatile and each has kept the Islanders in games more often than not. It's not all-star goaltending, but it's dependable, which is a relief.
* * *
Drag and Slackers
Josh Bailey: It's a long time coming but Bailey has shown little steps of progress as the year has gone on. Still only 22 and never poised to have the offensive numbers some hoped for on his draft day, he just needs to become a solid call-around player. That ideally means more than the 3-8-11 he's put up so far, but you can only do so much with 14:16 per game (1:30 on the PK). He is used in a lot of defensive zone starts, which would be alright except his faceoff percentage remains a low 43.1% overall and just 43.5% at even strength. He still occasionally makes risky decisions with the puck, but his all-around game appears to be progressing. It's that faceoff weakness that sticks out.
Marty Reasoner: Except for delivering at 54% on faceoffs, Reasoner hasn't delivered as expected. His linemates have been a mixed bag (but that's what you get with the fourth line) and his usage not quite as defense-oriented as imagined. You'd like a little more offense from him, but his low PDO hints that the pendulum will swing the other way eventually. Of course now he's out with a broken hand from blocking a shot, so we'll see what the landscape is like when he returns.
Brian Rolston: Rolston is neither as awful as a lot of fans say nor as useful as the Islanders originally thought. He no longer skates like he used to and his shot simply isn't the threat it once was. A stopgap, a placeholder until better forwards are ready, he's miscast as a second-liner. That said, being bumped off the first powerplay unit has led to that unit's improvement and possibly allowed him to devote more energies to EV play, where he's been a more diligent backchecker lately. And to be fair he is among the team's Corsi REL leaders despite a variety of linemates over the first half.
Tim Wallace: Like Pandolfo (see Incompletes below), Wallace isn't a slacker by any means, he's just not good enough or mobile enough to be a meaningful player at the NHL level. Almost incredibly, he's played just one fewer games (18) than Nino so far, though all have come in this second quarter. If he keeps things simple as he did upon his first callup, he can be a fourth-line placeholder and physical presence for now.
Steve Staios: It's not fair to call Staios a "slacker" when he keeps himself in excellent shape and does all he can, but he's certainly a drag. He's just limited in mobility and ability at his age, and it leads to gobs of penalties (17 minors, just unacceptable) and probably taxes his partner. Glaring stat: Staios' penalties taken per 60 minutes (1.7) is twice the rate of any other Islanders defenseman. Staios is at best a 6/7 defenseman now, and it's only recently he's been tried in that role instead of riding next to Streit.
Milan Jurcina: Speaking of Streit, his latest partner has been Jurcina and that is much preferred in these eyes. Jurcina is inconsistent -- as he has been all his career -- but his style and ability to get his shot on goal better complements the situations Streit is used in. Jurcina has refreshingly used his body more lately -- another frequent plea throughout his career -- and hopefully the pairing with Streit excels. Jurcina is the Isles' fourth-best defenseman, so lining up next to Streit on the second pair also makes some intuitive sense.
Mark Eaton: Eaton is Eaton. He tries to play a simple positional game that doesn't involve much risk with the body or the puck. (To be fair, he does block about two shots per game like his colleagues.) That screams "third pair" which is where he's been used (as well as on the PK) when healthy. He has the lowest Corsi Rel on the blueline, but that's in part because he's the only one used in almost exclusively defensive situations where shots for are much less likely. The KISS approach is probably right for his abilities, but that doesn't change the effect: One more defenseman who has trouble moving the puck forward once possession is gained.
* * *
The Injured Scapegoats: Last quarter we listed Mike Mottau and Rick DiPietro under the Failures category, and odds are that would be the case here too if they hadn't been hurt (or scratched, then hurt) for most of the second quarter. Nothing more to add to their report that wasn't said last time.
Nino Niederreiter and David Ullstrom: Nino's added 16 games since the first quarter, Ullstrom's added 10 more of his own, but both have had injury interruptions that make their first half and expected contributions for the second half murky. Both are projects of different variety. Ullstrom's little glimpse of offense upon his callup and his nice pace in the AHL are promising. After returning from the concussion he was reassigned to Bridgeport, but the bet here is he'll be back up soon.
Niederreiter is tough to quantify as he interns on the fourth line, but little glimpses here and there show a 19-year-old who is starting to pick up the defensive demands of the NHL game and starting to find the confidence with the puck that he'll need to be a factor at the NHL level. He's been a defensive liability in a healthy proportion of his appearances, but the Isles have obviously decided to put up with that as they try to coach him along. It will be informative to see where his curve is at by April, assuming no further injuries get in the way.
Jay Pandolfo: Pandolfo has not in any way been a slacker and in fact he's just done his fourth-line and PK duty as asked -- his O-zone start is an extremely low (for this team) 41.3%, which tells you how specialized his role is. But it's not sexy and fans would prefer a glimpse at a shiny prospect (even though Pandolfo consumes less than 10 EV minutes per night) than a former Devil. The problem is he and Reasoner are not as good at PK as Grabner and Nielsen (of course) and maybe not as good as Bailey or even Martin.
Another stopgap, he'll keep the spot warm while the prospects get more minutes in the AHL. Pandolfo was out with a broken foot for most of the second quarter so he gets an incomplete on this card, but his role and expectation is same as it ever was.
* * *
The first line is outstanding, the top defensive pair is pretty strong; it's filling in below that where the Islanders still suffer. (On that note, people will look to Bridgeport's current seven-game win streak as a glimmer.)
The Islanders could use more secondary scoring of course, and it's an open debate how much of that falls on the blueline's difficulty moving the puck out with speed and how much falls on the inadequacies of the bottom six or even bottom nine. (There is also room for general systems debate here, although you're getting into vague terms and coaching and lineup discussions that have so many variables that change each week.)
The team still scores at just a .76 ratio of 5-on-5 GF/GA, but for the first time in quite a while they're actually putting on as many shots (30.0) as they give up (29.9). The 7th-ranked PP (19.3%) and 10th-ranked PK (83.3%) have helped mitigate other deficiencies -- but we're still talking about a team that is 25th overall by points percentage and in a bubble of teams between 17th and 25th (currently 21st, at 48.90) in terms of Fenwick Close (even strength possession with the score tied or close).
People said the team wasn't as bad as its first quarter results and that may yet prove to be true. A bottom third league finish is still almost assured, but don't be surprised -- especially if you're fancy wanders to the top of the draft -- if it's closer to the low 20s than to 30th overall.
Note: Don't forget, the Islanders resume play in a matinee Monday, 1 p.m. EST start against the Predators.