"We've got to stay positive here," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "We've all been in this situation before, there's too much leadership, there's too much character on this team and I thought the guys worked. We're just not getting the results right now."
>>Jack Capuano, after the Isles 4-2 loss in Montreal
To say that the New York Islanders aren't getting the results right now is an understatement, but to say "the guys worked" or "they deserved better" is not sugar-coating the situation either.
The Islanders have some real problems right now, and their 0-4 road trip has dropped them from second to sixth in what is thus far the NHL's weakest division. Alarmingly, they have just four regulation or OT wins -- lowest in the division -- but not all is lost 18 games into the season. Not all worst fears are confirmed. Not yet.
Just on this last trip alone, a little different luck or a couple of shifts swung the other way could have meant a 2-2 trip, with the effort in Washington the only irreversibly losing effort of the four games.
In some ways hockey is like baseball in that it is a game of percentages: To succeed, you can't let the small samples get you to high or too low. Results are achieved through repeating good habits and counting on the fact that, over time, those habits pay off. Usually, the lifetime .300 hitter who hits .220 in April will rebound; the NHL team with an even goal differential but four games below .500 won't remain so.
The trick for a struggling hockey team is to identify what's not working (even if it's mostly "luck") and avoid panicking by changing what is.
However for fans, particularly in this Twitteriffic shout-at-the-web age, losing streaks bring echo chambers screaming about the many causes for what is, at least partly, always a game at the mercy of the hockey gods.
Here's a look at a few of the recurring echos I've noticed, and why I think certain ones are missing the point.
"Peter Regin hasn't done anything. He's invisible out there. Why is he here?"
Well, no. For his usage, Regin's done fine actually. Per data at Extra Skater, in all 5-on-5 situations with Regin on the ice, the Isles have held around 50% of possession* or better. That's not sterling, top-line stuff, but it's not part of the problem either.
*By possession here, I'm referring to Corsi or Fenwick figures in various even strength situations. That's a measure of which direction the puck is going -- toward the opponent's net or toward the Isles' net -- while a player is on the ice. It's a decent underlying metric in a world where hot streaks and slumps happen.
What's more? Regin is hardly being used for a top-line role. In fact by ice time he's being used as a fourth-line center. He's getting less ice time (12:27 per game) than even the ostensible fourth center Casey Cizikas (13:32), and that remains true even if you eliminate Cizikas' penalty kill work.
The "why is he here?" is another question, because Cizikas' line is the one line that is consistently underwater possession-wise, checking in around 44% at best. With these minutes, if you're upset for some reason that Regin is an Islander, your next statement should not be "...because Ryan Strome should have his role." And if you think he's added nothing to the team, you must miss Marty Reasoner.
"Pierre-Marc Bouchard doesn't fit with anyone. Why is he here?"
If you're someone who has ever waited half a season for Josh Bailey to figure his role or Kyle Okposo to find his groove -- or even if you've thought Thomas Vanek might need a few weeks to find chemistry with the Islanders' best offensive player -- then you probably don't want to cast a verdict on Bouchard after 18 games.
The fact is Bouchard has spent time on three different lines, and part of that is because of injury holes and other needs that didn't start with "we need to find Bouchard a role." Meanwhile, Isles possession figures with him on the ice have remained above 50% -- oh, and he's been getting third-line minutes.
He's the Islanders seventh-most used forward by time on ice, and he only gets second power play unit time -- which is a way to pick up a few points here and there, but no way to get the kind of production that Brad Boyes or P.A. Parenteau racked up in top-line, PP1 unit minutes before him.
In this context, if you see his seven points in 18 games as a failing, you might be playing too much NHL14. And perhaps you've already forgotten Keith Aucoin.
"The Islanders can't even beat a third-string goalie."
This is the kind of frustrated silliness you hear whenever the team loses to a goalie they shouldn't, instead of, say, a star. Yes, the Isles lost to Justin Peters and made him look good in the process. The weekend before, the Stanley Cup finalist Bruins lost to Kevin Poulin. I guess the Bruins suck and can't even beat a career AHLer/NHL backup.
Every sport I've ever followed has fanbases who focus on these fears. Humans remember the outliers, they don't remember the normal moments: Jim Carey once won a Vezina trophy; Johan Hedberg started his NHL career with a trade and callup that yielded one loss in his first nine games.
"Frans Nielsen is not a true second-line center."
Heh. We've been over that one before so we're not going to address it again here. Nielsen's stated preference over the summer to be a defensive-minded pivot doesn't change the fact he has produced like an NHL second-line center over the past few seasons. (Note: That doesn't mean he has been Evgeni Malkin. Most teams, it turns out, do not have a Malkin.)
But in any case, I bring him up now to stay true to the premise at the top of this post: Hockey is a percentage game, and streaks and slumps happen that fall outside the percentages; good and bad, they eventually level off. Nielsen is not a point-per-game NHLer nor a 24% shooter, so I expect his pace of 19 points in 18 games to fall back to earth along with his shooting percentage that is currently still at 23.7%.
That said, obviously he and his line -- whichever wingers he has at a given moment -- aren't the problem.
"Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald are not a top pair."
This one I actually can't argue with. They are the Islanders' top pair, and they might even be the most logical combo to carry the tougher assignments right now, but that doesn't mean they aren't a weak point, and their collective possession figure has been around 44%.
We discussed this in training camp when the Isles experimented with splitting them (a few good links within that story for more background), but the upshot is opponents tend to do better against this pair than they do against other NHL top pairings. Even if it pisses them off, and even if you argue it's the best the Isles have, that best is a weak point relative to the rest of the NHL.
Which brings us to...
"Injuries aren't an excuse."
This makes a fine motivational tactic within the locker room or when speaking to media about expectations, but in the world of understanding what's wrong injuries make a wonderful explanation, actually.
Key injuries hurting your team may be a sign of poor depth, but that doesn't mean they aren't an excuse. And the Lubomir Visnovsky injury is a pretty good one. It's not only that the Islanders miss Visnovsky's contributions in their own right; it's that any injury like that forces other players to try to punch above their weight class, to get more exposure in situations a better defenseman would otherwise have. Add to it that the team parted with Mark Streit over the summer and have yet to comfortably replace him, and Visnovsky's absence hurts all the more.
Again though, this is all percentages: Missing Visnovsky doesn't mean in any one game the Islanders defense won't get by. But it does mean over a stretch of multiple games they are increasingly more likely to suffer mistakes and failings due to his absence.
"Evgeni Nabokov is finished. Kevin Poulin is the answer."
At some point Nabokov will be finished, and as Dwayne Roloson's final employer discovered, that kind of realization may come before a player's last contract is played out, rather than before an old goalie is allowed to sign another one.
If it happens this season, we won't know if the 38-year-old Nabokov is through as an NHL-caliber goalie until it's too late, but 13 games sadly still doesn't quite make the case. What we do know for certain is thus far he's not been good enough, and his .894 save percentage is only better than backup goalies (including Viktor Fasth, occasionally mentioned on the Christmas list of Isles fans). Eliminating special teams, Nabokov's .908 EV save percentage doesn't rank him much higher. Collectively, the Islanders' .894 save percentage ranks 27th in the league.
The fact Fasth had such a hot start last season and has been so poor in limited action this year should remind us, one more time, that goalies are hard to evaluate in small samples.
Which is why we should be guarded in anointing Kevin Poulin or putting too many hopes in him based on five games. But Poulin has given the Isles a chance to win, and his .908 overall save percentage and .924 EV save percentage are at least worth watching.
"Charles Wang and Garth Snow are comfortable with losing."
I don't even know what that's supposed to mean. One can question Wang's business sense or Snow's managerial sense, but the whole notion that they prefer to be losing is absurd. They prefer to have a popular, successful, profitable team. If they didn't, they wouldn't authorize gambles like the Thomas Vanek trade.
The wisdom of their decisions is always up for debate, but this idea that they want you to suffer through a four-game losing streak like Jeffrey Loria's Expos is asinine and merits no further discussion.
Separating Panic from Problems
Good teams can lose four, no five games in a row, as San Jose just showed after opening the season by beating and outshooting the crap out of everyone. The Islanders are not the Sharks, but their difficulty over the last few weeks is not unique and hardly fatal.
The Islanders issues have been made worse by some genuinely poor play early in the season and some injuries and inconsistent efforts that have removed their margin for error over the past few weeks.
Chances are they'll snap out of it, even get at least slightly better goaltending going forward, and avoid a death spiral that sinks the season. Whether they do it in time now that the head start their Metro rivals gave them is squandered -- and when it happens, whether it's real or a swing of the luck pendulum in their favor -- well that's what's bound to keep us shooting at myths (good or bad) for the rest of the season.