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If “Safe is Death” then the Islanders are the Walking Dead

An idiot tries to diagnose a hockey team clinging to dear life.

THE WALKING DEAD ESCAPE Infects Atlanta Photo by Prince Williams/Getty Images

I am not a smart man. Frequent readers of this blog will attest to that.

But I have a theory. I have no data or actual objective knowledge to back that theory up. I curse the day Justin Bourne’s brilliant Systems Analyst posts went away because there is no doubt he, a former player, Islanders legacy and all around smart guy, could fill volumes about what it is we’ve been watching this season and the last.

But I have a theory. Because hockey writer and smart guy Adam Gretz speaks for all of us:

My theory starts during a glorious time in the team’s history:

October 2014 through January 2015:

The Islanders, playing in the final season at Nassau Coliseum, are resurgent. Having added goalie Jaroslav Halak and forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin over the summer, GM Garth Snow made two trades to bring in defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk just before training camp. The new players combine with some of the longtime veterans and the team comes out of the gate flying. It feels like the culmination of years of rebuilding and development are finally paying off.

They’re not only winning games (hovering between third and fifth best in the league for most of the first half of the season), but they’re playing a style that makes modern hockey fans drool. Every game is a shooting gallery. Every shift is a wave of relentless forechecking. Every breakout is a carry in, leading to long periods of puck possession. The team is one of the highest scoring and most exciting in the NHL.

Sure, Halak’s individual numbers aren’t great. But he makes enough saves to win games, which is more than we can say for back-up at the time Chad Johnson. John Tavares and Halak are voted into the All Star Game in January. Tavares damn near wins the MVP trophy if not for a silly internet vote known only to Blue Jackets fans. That really has nothing to do with my theory, but it just goes to show that everything was coming up Islanders.

Towards the end of the season, things inevitably slow down. That style couldn’t be kept up forever. Kyle Okposo misses time with an eye injury and Halak spends time on the IR, too. But they still earn their first 100-point season since forever. They stumble to the playoffs as a Wild Card team and into a series with the also resurgent Washington Capitals.

Here’s where it all goes downhill. It might have even happened earlier. I was too busy enjoying the hockey because I am not smart. But this is, for me, is the real line of demarcation.

2015 Playoffs:

The series against the Caps was a punishing, brutal series not unlike the ones the teams used to play in the 1980’s (that the Islanders invariably won). In just one year under super smart guy Barry Trotz, the Capitals are as well-oiled as a machine can be. They’re disciplined, balanced and ruthless, barely letting the Islanders get off the ground. The Islanders are feisty, crafty and just refuse to go away despite the odds against them...

...Until Game 7, in which Halak and Boychuk are the only Islanders to show up in an embarrassing, dishearteningly impotent loss. The Capitals won 2-1, but watching it felt like the score was 12-1. Despite Halak’s heroics, the Islanders never stood a chance.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations! Here’s my theory: The Islanders coaching staff decided after that playoff series that the team’s risky, freewheeling days were over because it wouldn’t win in the playoffs.

The team was mostly untouched during the following offseason, with only a few add-ons and a new back-up goalie in Thomas Greiss. But big changes were coming nonetheless.

2015-16 Season and Playoffs:

Fan frustration is at an all time high not because of the team’s start to this season but because the issues date back to all of last season.

Gone are the carry ins and shooting galleries. Gone is the aggression and relentlessness. In their places is a passive, boring system that lets the goalies do more of the work as the skaters possess the puck less. Incredibly, this actually worked last season! Greiss was much better than expected, and he and Halak (when healthy), combined to give the Islanders goaltending capable of bailing them out nightly.

In the end, they finished with another 100 points and a Wild Card berth. But you didn’t need stats or charts to tell you something was off. This wasn’t same team from 2014. It was, but it wasn’t.

In the playoffs, they meet a new darling - the Florida Panthers, full of old fan favorites and new school analytical thinking. The Panthers run roughshod, controlling almost every game at 5-on-5 and pushing the passive Islanders around the ice. Unfortunately for them, Greiss stood on his head and Tavares was like Batman, swooping in to save the day whenever his people need him. The Islanders won the series thanks to three gutsy overtime wins.

The system was now justified. The Islanders had survived on grit and goaltending, not risk. They played it safe and were rewarded with their first playoff series win in 23 years.

In the next round against Tampa Bay, the Islanders surprisingly played better than they had against Florida. But this time, the Lightning were the gutsier, smarter team and dispatched the Islanders in five games, the last of which was an almost exact, excruciating replica of the previous season’s Game 7 against Washington.

And so here we are:

I am not a smart man. I am also not a hockey coach. But I know what I’m watching isn’t working.

Watch an Islanders game and count the east-west passes to nowhere or no one. Count the pucks sent around the boards into the waiting feet of an opponent. Count the passes sent behind the net for no reason. Count the failed clears on the penalty kill (which was once great) that lead to full two minute shifts in their own zone. Count the pucks sent sailing out of their own zone down to the other end for icings when no support was present. Count the carry ins versus the dump ins on breakouts. Count the dump ins that aren’t retrieved and go right back the other way. Count the entry attempts that don’t make it past the top of the face off circles because an opponent is right there to stop it.

That’s an Islanders game in a paragraph. It’s not a free-flowing, enjoyable experience. It’s full of stops and starts and half measures and almosts and safe plays that lead to few legitimately dangerous scoring chances. Even their power play barely generates anything unless they get a lucky bounce.

People can point to the losses of Okposo and Frans Nielsen, but these same problems existed last season with those players. Some faces might be unfamiliar this year, but the issues aren’t.

If my theory is correct (and remember, I am not a smart man), the Islanders wouldn’t be the first team to succumb to a misguided change in systems. Japers Rink, which is so packed to the gills with smart people that it’s almost unfair, has a still interesting article on the Capitals changes under Bruce Boudreau that ultimately cost the coach his job. The Caps went from a wild run-and-gun team to a staid trapping team and it didn’t get them any closer to the Stanley Cup. They spent a couple of years in the wilderness before Trotz (seemingly) set them on the right path again, playing a style that works with the team’s strengths.

John Tortorella is not considered a smart man, but I’ll bet he’s a lot smarter than he seems. When he was coaching the Lightning, his motto was “Safe is Death.” He promoted a style that wanted defensemen to get into the offense and create scoring chances. It worked, all the way to the 2004 Cup, mainly because he had Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Dan Boyle among others at a time when they could all play that way. With the Rangers and Canucks, Tortorella apparently thought death was A-OK and instituted a style so rigid, you would think rigor mortis had set in with all 22 players. Now, he’s trying to bring “Safe is Death” back to the Blue Jackets, who don’t have St. Louis, Richards, Boyle, et al.

Although they’ve scored a bunch of goals this season, the Islanders defense isn’t what I’d consider “up in the play” that often. Like the forwards, they make safe plays around the boards all the time. Outside of Nick Leddy, they’re not known for carrying the puck into the offensive zone. They’re trying to be safe.

Jack Capuano is not considered a smart man, but I’ll bet he’s a lot smarter than he seems. He says he doesn’t want to limit his players’ creativity. He says he wants defenseman activating on offense if they have the opportunity. He says he wants his team to play with speed. That’s all fine and good. But none of it is happening. They’re trying to be safe. And their season is suffocating right in front of them.

I am not a smart man, but I know when something looks broken. Either the Islanders are playing the way the coach and GM want them to, or they’re playing this way in spite of being coached otherwise. Either the style they’re playing doesn’t suit their personnel or the personnel aren’t interested in adapting to it. Either way, something needs to change.

That would be the smart thing to do.