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Joshua Ho-Sang has a point, but that won’t matter

The again outspoken winger’s best point wasn’t about his own play, but about the relative enforcement of “accountability.”

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NHL: New York Islanders at Florida Panthers
I’m’re okay?
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

“Look, if you’re going to send me down because of defense, it’d be nice to see other people be held accountable. That’s all.”

That was the finishing quote in Arthur Staple of The Athletic’s check-in with New York Islanders prospect Joshua Ho-Sang as he toils the rest of this season in AHL Bridgeport.

It was also the most damning, and frankly on-point, Ho-Sang quote from the entire story.

Unintentionally, it was reinforced by the lone Garth Snow quote in the story: “Josh has to learn how to be reliable not only on the ice but off the ice,” Snow told The Athletic. “He’s going to be held accountable like every other player in this organization and that’s why he’s in Bridgeport.”

So, so many fans who’ve watched damn near every game from this team over the past decade would take issue with the claim that “every other player in this organization” is held accountable. Granted, we don’t have the insider view so surely we are often wrong when we go all #IslesTwitter with outrage about one player or another getting the scratch or demotion treatment while another cherished veteran or untouchable is trotted out game after game after game.

Likewise, the Islanders are far from the only NHL franchise to exhibit this paradoxical and inconsistent adherence to the Gods of Accountability.

But when you’ve seen enough suspicious cases over several years...there’s something there. And this franchise is still suffering from a credibility deficit. The Isles have long fancied themselves as unconventional — sometimes by necessity, given budgetary and respect gaps from a previous era -- but that “us against the world” mentality has also created blind spots that persist today.

Still, back to Ho-Sang: As to disagreement over his initial (and continued) demotion, both sides have their points.

For Ho-Sang’s part:

Ho-Sang is sanctioned while Isles fans watch other players receive a long, unending leash despite defensive miscues and laziness. This isn’t something new with Ho-Sang — nor is it something unique to the Islanders, frankly. But we’ve watched it over the years as young players are given Hard Lessons while “core” (and sometimes young) guys are allowed to have their off and wandering nights.

(There is also a fair discussion to be had about how much John Tavares was held accountable defensively from Day 1 as an Islander, but he is The Franchise and beats himself up enough about any miscues, which are more old-school friendly, so we’ll punt that to another day. Just like the Islanders.)

For the Islanders’ part:

Ho-Sang was bad defensively, in ways that aren’t just miscues, but also throw off other teammates on the ice. (Surprising your opponents is good. Surprising your teammates usually backfires unless you have Barzal-ian magic.) And Ho-Sang did have some absurdly long shifts. (So does Tavares. But he’s Tavares.) Ho-Sang has had a handful of “off-ice accountability” incidents, dating back to arriving late for his first Islanders training camp and up to, the undisclosed tea leaves would indicate, the cause of at least one healthy scratch in Bridgeport this season.

Both sides also have their entrenched oversteps:

For Ho-Sang’s part, he still betrays some youthful ignorance: “but you win more than you lose with me in the lineup...” (Let me tell you a story about the Jurcina Anomaly.) You wonder if his dwelling on their criticism of his turnovers is a sign he’s never going to fully swallow the most “works in juniors, not in the pros” parts of his game.

For the Islanders’ part, it was absurd for Doug Weight to mention him mid-winter when the Isles were suffering from forward injuries and essentially blamed Ho-Sang for not earning a callup. And again, their crowing about accountability falls on deaf and enraged fan ears when we see Weight defend the team’s play and effort in loss after ugly loss.

What Happens Next?

Can this situation be repaired? On the surface, absolutely. Every time he’s been asked about his demotions — and that’s a lot, because reporters know he’ll give an honest quote without fear of controversy — he’s taken pains to say he likes the staff and management and knows they want what’s best.

Staple reported that Ho-Sang said he and his agent have not asked for a trade, and you’d think a player could speak openly about his frustrations without being ostracized.

But this is the Islanders, with a very checkered player development and evaluation history. And Ho-Sang is, despite his talent, not a slam-dunk kind of must-have prospect. The critical treatment he’s received from the Isles is related to why he fell in the draft, and something you could easily see victorious “old school” coaches like, say Ken Hitchcock or Joel Quenneville or John Tortorella administering.

I don’t know how much positive impact Sound Tigers coach Brent Thompson can have on a player’s development, but I do take him at his word when he says (emphasis mine):

“That’s been the biggest message from us and he’s getting it. He has some terrific abilities, his speed is dynamic. It’s just that buying into the team concept and playing a certain way – at times. We don’t want to take away his creativity. I think there’s a misconception that we’re trying to take that away. No! We want him to be creative...”

This part is not rocket science — indeed, and frustratingly for tweener talents like Ho-Sang, it’s more art. Every creative player, who inherently takes a risk in the pursuit of doing great things few players can do, must have a good sense of when to Try That Thing and when to Play It Safe.

Mathew Barzal is such a player, and he’s had his share of goof-ups trying to do too much this year (by the way: So has Tavares), but Barzal’s balance of production-vs-mistakes is so overwhelmingly in the black that even the conservative Islanders have to keep giving him the puck.

Ho-Sang’s vulnerability is that his offensive talent, and possibly his decision-making, will never be in that elite stratosphere. So the leash for players like him making creativity-born mistakes is much shorter. And then when such players are outspoken, well, it disturbs the conservative old-school hockey gods.

That’s why it’s not going to matter that he makes some very good points: It only matters whether he can continue to harness his own game, and whether the “keep it in the room” Islanders can overlook this “hockey code” infraction to still do what’s actually best for the on-ice product.

Bottom line: Yes, Ho-Sang is an imperfect player, who needs some work and has had his share of turnovers and shift overstays. But no, he’s far from alone on that front, as it’s an Islanders problem that goes well beyond one man.

Three More Things from Ho-Sang’s Interview

  1. You knew this would create extreme reactions at both ends of the spectrum, and also lead to clickety-headlines like NBC’s “Ho-Sang Blasts Islanders.” (Really? That’s a blast? Oh, it takes so little.)

On one side you have people suggesting Ho-Sang is a star-in-waiting, if only the Isles wouldn’t screw it up. On the other side you have old-school closed minds saying it’s all Ho-Sang’s fault, or slightly more modern types saying he has a good point but he shouldn’t express it publicly. Just check out the endless replies to Staple’s tweet linking to the story for the full gamut of hyperbole.

2. Many will note Ho-Sang’s AHL production has hardly screamed “recall this guy!” But in addition to some interesting roles on the low-scoring Sound Tigers — and remember that some talented players say it’s easier to play in the NHL than the AHL because all your NHL teammates think at high speed — apparently there was some undisclosed injury this spring, per a source in Staple’s story.

3. NO, it’s not Staple’s fault (ye gods, really?) nor is Ho-Sang being taken advantage of by a reporter, as some in the Twittersphere suggested. Ho-Sang is a hot topic among fans and an obvious story for Staple to follow up on. Ho-Sang has been quoted plenty of times making headlines by much larger media, so he’s not unaware of how his words may be perceived.