In November, everything about this hockey team was a lot better. The Isles had one of the most productive top 6’s in hockey, boasting Josh Bailey as a Hart contender, Leddy as a Norris contender, and the ever-exciting Mat Barzal as a shoe-in for the Calder. Sure, the goaltending was less than reliable, and the bottom 6 wasn’t particularly good, but the Islanders’ offense was turning this team into something fans have not seen in a long while, a possible cup contender. Now, in the cold and unforgiving month of February, the team is crashing from the season’s earlier sugar rush, and have seemingly been taken back down to earth by the hockey gods by force. What happened to this promising team? Big injuries and a lack of talent happened, and it’s something that needs to change, fast.
November provided a high scoring, risky team that was a blast to watch, now the Islanders are what can only professionally can be described as a "snooze fest." I’m not a particularly busy guy, however, instead of watching a team that blew my mind and made me get out of my chair and cheer for earlier in the year, I’d almost rather take a nap with my cat than watching. It’s frustrating, the Isles still have some of the two best lines in hockey, however it’s almost not worth watching now due to fixable team woes. The offense is there, but almost everything else is now missing.
The bottom six provides some of the most dreadful hockey I’ve ever seen. It’s unproductive, bad defensively, has horrible possession, and sometimes includes an over-glorified AHL goon. In the year of our Lord, 2018, where speed and skill reign as king in the NHL, the Islanders use one of their 23 roster spots on Ross Johnston, a guy who can fight better than he can skate, and why? This is and has been fixable; Anthony Duclair, a reliable bottom 6 right winger who asked to be traded from the perennially horrible team in Arizona would do wonders for the Isles, as he’d provide some scoring and, more importantly, wouldn’t be a turnover machine like Alan Quine, Shane Prince, Jason Chimera- the list goes on. However, despite Duclair’s low cost, and cheap, rental of a contract (it expires in the offseason), Garth Snow opted out of trading the scraps that he would cost, and allowed him to walk on and into Chicago, where he has been getting minutes with Jonathon Toews in the top 6. Maybe Garth didn’t want to pay for the 22 year old Duclair, which wasn’t a lot, as he ended up being traded for a bottom 6 guy in Richard Panik, and a minor leaguer, perhaps Mr. Snow would rather go with an in-house option, as he regularly does. He did end up looking to Bridgeport to solve this, where he called up the aforementioned goon Johnston, and the turnover monster that fans know as Tanner Fritz. This isn’t good enough, or even the best option. Josh Ho-Sang, the internet’s favorite Islander, is rotting in the AHL. Sure, he was good for a lot of turnovers earlier in the season, but, he’s proven he’s a potent offensive weapon, and has chemistry with Ladd, Beauvillier, and Brock Nelson, the last of which desperately needs to get going offensively.
To add to the bad and boring bottom 6, the bad and boring, injury riddled defense has been equally dreadful. Most goals against the Islanders happen like this: bad, young defenseman not named Nick Leddy passes it to bottom 6 forward, who then turns it over to the opposing team, who then puts it in the back of the net. The Islanders’ defense, with guys who quite frankly belong in the AHL, perform this ritual often and a lot, which produces shots against, and eventually goals against for the Islanders. In the past five games, the Islanders have allowed 225 shots on net, which if you crunch the numbers is 45 shots a game, which is quite a few numbers over the league average of 31.7. Sure, the defense has been hurting, losing top 4 guys like Calvin DeHaan for the season, and Johnny Boychuk for an extended period of time, but if Garth would look to other avenues, such as the cheap rental Cody Franson, this problem could be avoided. He hasn’t had the most impressive numbers this year, but his cap hit is almost nothing, and it expires this offseason. It was basically a no-risk signing for the Isles’ struggling defense. However, instead of claiming him on waivers, Garth allowed him to clear them, and now he’s playing in the AHL while guys like Dennis Seidenberg consistently play horribly with little to no accountability.
Accountability is something Coach Doug Weight preaches, however in recent weeks he hasn’t been practicing it. Blaming losses on bad luck and injuries, he continues to throw guys into the mix who aren’t putting up numbers, but are turning over the puck. The poster boy for "Isles’ Accountability" is Jason Chimera. He’s played in all 55 NHL games this year, and for that he’s produced 11 points. When he’s on the ice he’s either playing mediocre defense, or turning the puck over in his own zone. He’s minus 10 on the year, which is impressive considering last year he was a valuable goal scorer, scoring 20 goals in the 16-17 campaign, where he also notched a plus one rating. Despite his embarrassing stat line this year, as I mentioned earlier, he’s played every game so far, rather than giving other guys, like Ross Johnston, the aforementioned goon, who against all odds has gotten 2 goals and an assist in his 4 games played.
It should be mentioned that the Islanders may have solved what used to be their main problem, the goaltending, by doing absolutely nothing. Jaro Halak has been nothing short of excellent lately, touting 40 save games that the Islanders still end up losing due to the 45 shots they’ll allow.
Reading this, you’d assume that the Islanders will be sellers at the upcoming deadline, however as it currently stands they are tied in points for Columbus in points, who currently sit in the second wild card spot, beating the Islanders on goal differential. It’s the little things that need to be fixed with this team, and if Garth makes the moves necessary at the coming deadline, this team can still be a Stanley Cup contender.
Speaking of being a cup favorite, the Islanders have to do that this year, anything less would be a failure. Not being a team that makes progress this year will, in my opinion, send this team back into rebuilding mode. If this team doesn’t at least make the playoffs, John Tavares can and should leave the Islanders in his upcoming UFA status. Since being drafted in 2009, this team has given very little reason for him to stay around, winning a total of 1 playoff series during his tenure. Losing Tavares, who is by far the best player on this roster, would be a giant loss for this team, and they’d lose most of their strength up the middle, other than Barzal. Tavares leaving Long Island doesn’t include the many other players who are looking to get new, more expensive contracts soon; Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, and Jordan Eberle, are also on expiring contracts in the next 2 years. To be frank, the Isles can’t afford all these players, who are currently on relatively cheap deals for their overall production. The Islanders have a cheap top 6, which is also one of the best top 6’s in the NHL this year, anything less than at least playoff berth will be embarrassing for this team, as this should ostensibly be the year that they go all in for a cup.
As I mentioned earlier, this team is boring nowadays, and if they don’t make the playoffs, lose most of their top 6, and go back into rebuild mode, this time building around the rookie and future star Mat Barzal, they are in deep trouble. One of the few positives of this season so far has been the announcement of their new stadium, Belmont, finally giving the Isles a permanent home. However, they’ll have a hard time selling out the stadium if this team doesn’t do something quick, as they’re on the track to rebuilding, and should be avoiding this at all costs.
Hey Morgan Frye here! Thanks for reading! If you’d like to read all of the other awful garbage I post on the internet, follow me on twitter @morgandotnet