By the numbers, the New York Islanders special teams are responsible for the team's relative improvement now (19-22-7) over last year (16-27-7) at the All-Star Break. The 19.5% powerplay ranks 6th overall and the 84.9% penalty kill ranks eighth in the NHL. At 5-on-5 their goals for/against ratio of 0.73 is bottom of the league.
A league-high 10 empty net goals allowed skews the picture slightly, and one possible bright spot is that their shot differential has improved both overall (30.1 shots per game vs. 29.9 allowed) and at 5-on-5 shots per 60 minutes (29.8 for, 29.1 against). Their Fenwick (shots fired +/-) with the score tied or close has them in the middle of the league with a 49.54 percent of possession, though as mentioned last week that's driven by John Tavares line.
As covered in the first-half report card for each player there are signs of improvement, but any season carries a mix of unsustainable or surprise factors that influence the result. A positive sign may be that the areas needing improvement are clear and the roster openings to address them are so apparent they will have to be addressed both from outside and from below.
We'll get to that in the second part of our mid-season roundtable, but here is Part 1, in which our authors share their surprises, disappointments and trade deadline expectations. As always, weigh in with your own.
What (individually or team-wide) has been your biggest pleasant surprise?
Chris McNally: My most pleasant surprise has to be Matt Martin. Last year I think we got a Steve Webb plus type performance out of him, skate around and lay people out, and mix it up with the other team. This year he has shown that he not only has offensive upside to him, but he's shown that he's an integral part of this team. I don't think there's been anyone this side of John Tavares who has consistently played as well as Martin has this year.
Keith Quinn: Individually, P.A. Parenteau's increased and consistent production, game evolution and versatility switching lines. Team-wide, vastly improved special teams performance...if not for that, the team would probably be in worse shape than last year.
Mark D.: I think I've said this before, but the continuing excellent play of Travis Hamonic. Obviously he played the full amount of time in juniors, but you still expect someone who had all of 19 pro games before his 2010 recall to struggle in the big league. He continues to impress on a nightly basis, and seems like he is going to be a major part of the defense for at least the next decade. Plus his play has helped Andrew MacDonald who struggled to return to form from his injury at the end of last season.
Mike B.: I think it's the cohesiveness of the team. Grabbing up a bunch of veteran stopgaps and having the sort of success Florida has had in the first half is quite rare - usually you add only one or two people, judiciously, not four or more like Pandolfo, Staios, Reasoner, and Rolston. Looking back, I think a lot of the early struggles were possibly a side effect of just having too many new faces in key roles. The team's stabilizing now and playing generally better, getting better luck. And through it all, the young core held up better than could be expected, and even raised their games. Nobody turned on each other. Watching Matty Mo, Grabs, KO, and Martin rag each other on Twitter is hilarious and really a sign of a close-knit group. Add in PAP and Tavs and Hamonic (based on their post-game comments and such) and this is an exceptionally tight group.
Dominik: I'd have to go with Martin and Parenteau. Martin because I did not expect him to adapt his game so diligently to the Shanaban environment -- you can really see him thinking on each of his hits and pulling up as needed -- and I've been pleasantly impressed with his even strength and PK play. The classic Ben Eager Incident stands out, but he'd exhibited more judgment in 40+ games this year than Zenon Konopka did in 82 last season. ... I was already a defender of Parenteau's first-line performance coming into the season, but paradoxically I'm glad they have switched his linemates because that's important to gauge how all-around useful he can be on other lines as they go into extension talks. They need to have Parenteau as a signed asset who can help the powerplay and any variety of lines.
* * *
2) What (individually or team-wide) has been your biggest disappointment?
Chris McNally: My biggest disappointment has to be everything surrounding Blake Comeau. From his complete lack of production to the way he was used and ending with the way he was shown the door, the whole situation was a mess. I not only expected another 20 goal season from Blake but I expected him to be the main part of a winning season this year for the Isles, and both he and the coaching staff's use of him was a big let down. Top it off with a Thanksgiving stomachache, not from too much turkey, but from letting Comeau leave without any sort of return, and you've got a situation that pretty much summed up the first quarter of the season for the Isles.
Keith Quinn: I don't have any particular grievances with any players individually, as they've performed about to what I expected of them...or at least with understandable excuses. Biggest team-wide disappointment has been the roster movement and the excessive ice time given to the veterans in light of their performances. In the second half, I would like to see more David Ullstrom, Nino Niederreiter and some of the Bridgeport defense get a shot.
Mark D.: Rick DiPietro. I mean at this point we aren't even asking him to be a good goaltender, we just want him to stay healthy. For the last 4 seasons he's been at a .900 SV% or worse, which really isn't cutting it for an NHL level goaltender. Add in that he failed to get to double digit games for the 3rd time in the last 4 seasons too. It's why most Islander fans weren't worried when the pundits were yelling about the Isles having a 3 headed goalie, and for the most part the health of all 3 goalies has worked out to an almost perfect 2 goalie rotation.
Mike B.: The complete inability of one-half of the defense. I was hoping one of those guys would play over his head and fill out the second pairing. Staios takes too many penalties, Jurcina forgets that he's 6'5", Eaton is oft-injured, and Mottau is Mottau. You could maybe build one effective defender out of their best skills.
Dominik: I expected the defense to be troubling and Brian Rolston to be slightly better as a stopgap, so I'll turn to the COZO: Not so much that Comeau is gone, but rather what that timeline of decision-making represents. I feared for his future after he reached 24 goals because I figured that was an outlier that would make his arbitration-eligible asking price higher than his value. So I was prepared for his departure, and for all I know there was never a trade to be made last spring or this summer. Still, it seems if they knew they might sour on him so quickly as to waive him during a period when no Islanders were scoring, then they could have sold him earlier and gotten something back. His usage earlier this season (virtually no PK time) makes me think Capuano was not a fan, in which case maybe this is a case of a GM getting his coach to try one more time before cutting bait, then cutting bait when no fish would bite. The whole sequence feels like a missed opportunity, however, and I am not as optimistic about Ullstrom and others being able to upgrade the overall depth this season.
* * *
What moves do you see being made at the trade deadline? What moves should be made by the trade deadline?
Chris McNally: As the trade deadline approaches I think it's still up in the air what the Isles will do. It depends on how delusional Snow is about this team making a serious playoff run. If he seriously thinks they can win, then expect the Island of Past-Their Prime Toys to continue on. The fact that Capuano has run Nabokov out their so much even after Montoya was back makes me wonder if Snow will deal him. No matter what any other site says, the only person on this team that should be traded that will get any kind of return is Nabokov, and I think the Islanders need to trade him by the deadline. If someone is foolish enough to pony up anything for Rolston, Reasoner, Staios, or Jurcina, the Isles should jump on it in a heartbeat.
Keith Quinn: I'm starting to think that there won't be very much in the way of player movement at the trade deadline...and I'm relatively certain the Isles won't be "buyers." It looks like the moveable assets really do not have much value right now. DiPietro's season ender makes a Nabokov move unlikely unless the Islanders want to be stuck in the same situation as last year when they traded Dwayne Roloson. If anything, I expect low level deals for late round picks. The moves that should be made involve waivers and promotions to see how the youth at Bridgeport are coming along.
Mark D: The Nabokov trade is the most obvious one. Although I'm not against him sticking around if the Islanders are making something of a push. People have this weird belief that you can always get 1st/2nd round picks or highly rated prospects. Sorry, it doesn't work that way for the most part anymore (except for inexplicably Andy Sutton and Chris Campoli). Ty Wishart was probably the highest return for Rollie, so anything anywhere near Wishart's level would be a nice get for Snow. If he can get anything for the expiring contracts of the elderly, that would be nice too.
Mike B.: It might be too soon to swing for the fences, a la Ryan Smyth in '07, so Garth's likeliest moves are finding a good playoff home for Nabokov (he could net a meh prospec and a pick, maybe even a second), and possibly suitors for a couple of the Cap Mules. I would be shocked if he parted with prospects to bring in a frontline player, unless it was someone under contract for next season.
Dominik: Should? Sign Nielsen and Parenteau, full stop. But provided the apocalypse does not arrive and extensions are indeed reached with Frans Nielsen and Parenteau, I don't expect much trade action at all. Perhaps a Milan Jurcina, Mark Eaton or Evgeni Nabokov low-cost rental if someone comes asking. But Comeau is already gone and everyone else is either undesirable or part of TEH CORE. Of course some fans still believe Garth Snow should be able to parlay an average prospect, an expiring free agent and a goalie into a young, rising top four defenseman, so I eagerly await that visit from the Trade Fairy.
We covered more questions, but this 1800-word post was getting long so we'll post Part 2 after this one percolates for a while. Meanwhile, have at these themes and our silly answers in comments.