Before this season started, I wrote about my personal goal for the Islanders' season. I didn't have a specific record or outcome in mind. I just wanted the team to take the next step and firmly establish themselves as a deep, confident group that I felt could win any game against any opponent. Having not felt that way about the Islanders in a very long time (if ever), I thought I would know the feeling when I saw it.
As of the All Star Break, it's so far, so bad. So very, very, terribly, horribly, unconscionably bad.
Or maybe not. On a recent episode of The Hockey PDOcast, hosts Dimitri and Travis focused on the Islanders and called them a team that, "has floated between very good and average all season" and said that nothing about them "jumps out as being especially terrible" (or something along those lines). The analysis was simultaniously uplifting and dispiriting.
The fact is the Islanders have floated along this season, and are in many ways lucky to be where they are right now. The 8-2 run back in November gave them a small cushion but since that time, they've alternated small periods of wins and losses and now sit third in the Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of surging New Jersey and Pittsburgh.
The confident, competent team I was hoping to see every night simply hasn't materialized. Sometimes they're there, pushing back against their opponent and eventually tilting the game their way (examples include recent games against Ottawa, Columbus, the Rangers, and even a losing effort against Vancouver). But just as often, the Islanders come out flat and stay that way until it's too late. If you're a masochist, revisit the no-shows against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington and, most recently, a too-little-too-late loss to Detroit.
For unattached observers, that adds up to a perfectly mediocre, middle of the pack team. To an obsessed one, it means panic and sleepless nights.
The Islanders have 35 games to reestablish themselves as a team with a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup. The crazy thing is, even after 47 mostly blah games, I still think they can do it. This roster still - as has been noted approximately 45,000 times this season - consists of mostly the same players from last year's 101 point season, save a sixth defenseman and a (much better) back-up goalie. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest to see them rip off one or more long winning streaks in the run-up to the playoffs.
And yet, they've just been so... ugh. I don't even know.
To be sure, it hasn't all been bad news. Brock Nelson could have 30 goals by the time it's all done, Travis Hamonic has been having the best season of his career (in a season in which he kindly asked for a trade, which is so Islanders), and goalies Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss have been uniformly excellent.
But not only have the Islanders not taken a step forward this season, but they've actually receded into the crowd and away from the spotlight. If not for the continuing complaints about Barclays Center's quirks (which have slowed down themselves), on some game nights you'd be hard-pressed to know the Islanders are even playing.
I'm still waiting to see the "swagah" that Jack Capuano always talks about on a nightly basis. I'm waiting to see John Tavares take over a game, or Ryan Strome and Anders Lee become the kind of reliable scoring threats that make teams pay attention to them, opening up even more space for Tavares. I'm waiting for Johnny Boychuk to return from his injury and unleash his slap shot on the power play again.
We've only seen these elements in spurts this season. Mostly, the players have taken the "Don't get too high after wins or too low after losses" mantra to the extreme and stayed on a keel so even, you could use it to level a shelf.
There's still time to believe. I still want to. Maybe this will all seem silly a month or two from now.
It's a modest goal. I'll know it when I see it. Forty-seven games into the season, I'm still looking.