The Islanders played little this week, traveled a lot, and experienced two more extra-time losses to extend their winless streak and make even remote playoff dreams an exercise in delusion.
Here are a few quotes that typify where they are and how they got here.
“Obviously, this isn’t a whole lot of fun right now.”
That’s the captain and Biggest Summer Free Agent, John Tavares, reacting to another tough one as the OT loss in Vancouver extended the winless streak to seven.
But Canadian hockey media being Canadian hockey media, the quote — about the game, the streak, the team’s struggles — was immediately converted into clickbait all across the land to mean he meant he’s not having fun as an Islander and so will surely leave as a free agent (to Montreal, or maybe Toronto, or perchance ... hmm, what do these destinations have in common?). (Yes, it’s been logged in the Tavares Free Agency Encyclopedia, Vol. II.)
So much that he was asked to clarify in a Newsday follow-up.
I know this isn’t a national character thing. It’s a popularity-breeds-click-bait thing. Other sports get the same treatment in New York media and other major markets. (Before the era of clickbait, it was talk-radio blowhards 24/7.( NFL coverage across the land is absurdly TMZ’d this way.
But in hockey, the frenzied mass of media attention always weighs heavier north of the border, where attendance figures from the U.S. south are used to stir up jingoist fervor rather than any serious discussion of what the league might gain from growing where people don’t already drink the sport for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“Nick Leddy was also in a good place.”
It could be an “Arrested Development” narration or the beginning of a Kafka story. But this is about how the top Islanders defenseman was off to such a great start this season — and the Islanders record was also very promising — before things fell apart for both.
Arthur Staple explored that and Leddy’s ugly plus/minus total (it’s not a meaningful stat, but it’s a stat people see so it becomes meaningful) in a post for The Athletic. Doug Weight knows there were a lot of empty-netters and shorthanded goals conceded to contribute to that stat, and Leddy is always on the ice for those. But both discussed how they know after Leddy embraced the challenge to up his game even more, some new challenges and possibly even complacency set in.
“...although a small sample size - he’s done a really good job to this point.”
That’s Weight discussing Christopher Gibson’s play in very limited action. The goaltending position has been a sore spot for much of the season. As Jaroslav Halak recovered his game, the Isles were falling apart in front of him. Once they addressed their defensive issues, Halak gave up some poorly timed stinkers that helped build the current winless streak.
Halak is the pending unrestricted free agent, while Thomas Greiss — who’s been awful most of the season but played well in his last game before getting hurt — is signed for two more years.
So they’ll want to see what they have in Gibson, who was somewhat promising before losing most of last season to injury. But whatever they learn, yes, it’s a small sample size. Based on his previous record, an inexpensive backup is the reasonable ceiling here.
“You’d see Frans swallow up a wrist shot and get moving out of our end.”
That’s Thomas Hickey discussing the Islanders’ old approach to defense under Jack Capuano, and how they’ve recently made adjustments to go back to that more of a “zone” rather than man-to-man approach in their own zone, trusting the intelligence of their centers to read the play and go where it’s needed.
“Swallowing” a shot from the point isn’t exactly the most-desired result, but it beats leaving a guy wide open to take a better shot from the high slot because the opponent out-maneuvered your coverage in man-to-man.
There’s more to the quote (“Most of the year it’s been more man on man, though we didn’t call it that. It was more like what Jersey does – you get a guy and basically tackle him in the D zone. Now it’s more of a zone, you have an area on the ice you have to take care of and when it goes back to their D, the center plays soft like we used to do – where you’d see Frans...”) and much more in the story by Arthur Staple for The Athletic, including discussion of how the loss of Calvin de Haan and Johnny Boychuk exposed the approach’s unsustainable shot-bleeding results.
I just marked it because it was jarring to see mention of Frans Nielsen, back when he did what he did best in the orange and blue before suffering further for the Wings. Nielsen was knocked out by a cheap, late head shot that earned David Backes a three-game suspension this week, too.
Nielsen’s hurt. Kyle Okposo’s struggling -- now again with a concussion — for a bad Sabres team. Matt Moulson is toiling in the AHL. P.A. Parenteau is in Russia. Travis Hamonic’s Flames are on the outside of the playoff picture. Mark Streit’s retired with a Cup ring from the unmentionables.
Yeah, “this isn’t a whole lot of fun right now.”
“Traveling is really what kind of wears you down.”
That’s Tavares, from the infamously headlined Newsday story-turned-Canadian-gossip, talking about how nice it is for the Isles to get to catch their breath with a couple days in Banff during this road trip. Granted, due to location the Isles have some of the easiest travel of any team in the league, but it’s all relative, and it all wears you down.
Unfortunately, they’re getting this respite right as their season is essentially being killed off. They’ll come back home rested, but hardly refreshed.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be up here this long.”
Whatever you make of the decision to recall Tanner Fritz (instead of, say, Josh Ho-Sang), you shouldn’t begrudge the undrafted and oft-overlooked forward his moment in the spotlight. He sounded realistic about his chances and so fully relished being on the road trip and in the lineup when the Islanders visited Edmonton, the closest NHL city to his home of Grand Prairie, Alberta.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said, with friends and family making the drive.
The team’s current trajectory and results stink. But stories like this never get old. So many pursue this dream, so few get even a moment like Fritz’s to share with those who helped him get there.
After the Islanders finish the road trip in Calgary Sunday evening, they’ll have three more days before facing the Capitals at home Thursday, which begins a 10-games-in-16-days stretch.