Ten days ago we weighed a few critical questions we expect the New York Islanders to face for most of the 2015-16 season. Now as they are set to open the season -- and christen their new location in Brooklyn -- with a weekend set against the Chicago Blackhawks, we weigh three more that are acute to season's first month, but whose impact could alter this season's outcome.
1. Do the Isles have a Goaltending Problem?
It's a question as familiar to Islanders fans as "15-year contract," but after a reprieve during the summer of 2014, that question is back. Granted, last season was a big step forward -- mostly because previous goalies had been so bad -- but Chad Johnson's awful number as backup kept the question in the air.
Now the Isles should have a solid backup in Thomas Greiss, but...he's the backup. And he's starting on opening night.
Jaroslav Halak has long held the credentials of a number one goalie, but what he lacks is a history of sustained good health. About 60 regular season games appears to be his ceiling, one he's never actually reached. Last season's 59 games was speckled with minor injuries here and there -- nothing unusual for a goalie, but surely a sign he will not be one of those classic workhorses whose absence is the exception.
Meanwhile, Greiss should be a real upgrade over Johnson, but his preseason was unimpressive, for whatever that's worth. And with the loss of Kevin Poulin to waivers, behind Greiss are a 24-year-old J-F Berube with zero NHL experience, and Stephon Williams with virtually no pro experience.
So Halak's "day to day" injury from early in preseason is nothing too unusual, except that you'd like to get a nice chunk of games out of the way before the first injuries mount. It's at least a background concern that this injury could muddy up the all-important first month of the season.
Speaking of which...
2. How Badly Will Hickey's Injury Hurt?
Another injury that leaves an immediate mark on the lineup is the upper body injury to Thomas Hickey, expected to keep him out around a month. Hickey was set to be a third pairing defenseman, but he was part of a good second/third pair last season which was key to the Islanders' depth.
With the left-sided Hickey out, promising right-sided rookie Ryan Pulock gets overlooked for Brian Strait, who needs know introduction for Islanders fans.
It's at least understandable if the coaching staff wants to keep the top four together and avoid putting Pulock on his off side for his first NHL games, but Strait's weakness with the puck and Marek Zidlicky's spotty recent history makes that third pairing a point of concern.
The departed and missed Lubomir Visnovsky didn't impress the Chicago Blackhawks during a brief training camp PTO, so it's possible age and the concussion that ended his season last spring has caught up to him. But whether Lubo could help the Isles or not, it's a good bet 2015 Zidlicky will not be as good for the Isles as 2012-15 Visnovsky was.
If the Isles rely too much on Zidlicky and Strait, all his failings exposed, it could be trouble.
Speaking of which...
3. Will Capuano's Worst Tendencies Cost Points?
It's not just Hickey's absence that hurts, but also what might be done because of it.
Thanks to the combination of odd decisions and our social media age, coach Jack Capuano is a lightning rod for many fans, as well as a muse for humor. Much humor. The second-longest tenured coach in franchise history certainly has kept his team playing with a consistency of effort and focus long past many coaches' expiration dates. But some of his lineup decisions and in-game deployments defy 21st-century, analytics-era wisdom.
Beyond reaching for Strait at the first opportunity, troubling addictive tendencies include rolling four lines even in close-and-late situations, penalty killer selection that can favor old-school grinder types over fleeter forwards who are proven better at shorthanded play, and a refusal to give lengthy eloquent answers that would keep fans from mocking his-- oh, what am I saying? Nothing would prevent the mocking. (For more tendencies, just check comments on any given day.)
As another example where fan hysteria meets an ambiguous dilemma: Capuano was ahead of the curve in pulling his goalie early for a sixth attacker -- much to the mockery of some fans -- but until last season his team seemed untutored in what to do once the goalie was pulled. (Also: See the above garik16 tweet.) As with many things, poor execution can undermine a progressive idea.
Point is, though Capuano has had his team headed in the right direction the last few seasons, there are definite episodes and choices during the season that are likely costly over the long haul, even to the objective, dispassionate observer.
It's often unclear whether a general manager, a coach, or an assistant coach (e.g. special teams) is more responsible for any specific selection/deployment, but one classic role of the GM is to take potentially self-destructive tools away from a coach's toolbox. Using Strait as an example, he can be of service as a seventh defenseman, but if that turns into a regular spot when better options are healthy, the keeper of the forest must step in to correct the tender of individual trees.