Isles Files

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What's wrong with the Islanders?

New York Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov gets beat

New York Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov gets beat for a goal by right wing Tom Wilson in the third period of a 6-2 loss to the Capitals at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (Nov. 5, 2013). (Credit: MCT)

RALEIGH, N.C. -- It’s time to ask and break down the following question: What’s wrong with the Islanders?

Let’s dive in.

Is it the goaltending?

Certainly, Evgeni Nabokov has not been good enough at times this season. The difference between what I like to call “Twitter Reality” and “Hockey Reality” is that not every goal in a bad game such as Tuesday’s is the goaltender’s fault. Yes, you need your goaltender to steal games here and there when your team is struggling. On Tuesday, I’d say the first two goals were opportunities for Nabokov to do that. After that, his teammates lost battles or just gave up on plays in the defensive zone. As Flames coach Bob Hartley said about his own team in their blowout loss to the Wild, “You could have had Roy, Belfour and Brodeur tied together out there and they still would have scored.”

Twitter Reality says that Nabokov is an abject failure and Jack Capuano was at fault for starting him on Tuesday, coming off Kevin Poulin’s very good outing on Saturday. Hockey Reality is that you have two goaltenders, neither of whom can carry you through a long stretch of six or seven straight starts as of now. Better to get a rested Nabokov back in and see what he could do.

That said, I can almost guarantee you’ll see Poulin on Thursday in Raleigh. My own feeling is that it’s time to see what Poulin can give you with a stretch where he’s the starter and Nabokov is the second option. Nabokov isn’t a stand-on-your-head guy. Poulin might be, if given the chance. And perhaps the rest of the team will wise up and play smarter in front of Poulin.

Is it the coaching?

Another dose of Twitter Reality vs. Hockey Reality. Twitter Reality says that everything is Capuano’s fault, give or take a few things. Hockey Reality says that pro players, especially ones who’ve been through the wars together like this group has, solve their own problems when it comes to massive breakdowns like the Isles had in the middle period on Tuesday.

The pro head coach is not a master motivator. He’s a tactician, a workhorse who studies tendencies and tries to teach them, repeatedly. When a team tunes out a coach, it’s time for a change. When a coach and a GM don’t see eye to eye, it’s time for a change.

On this team, coach and GM are in sync perhaps more than any other team in the NHL. And Capuano got this mostly same group of players to stick to their system and play “smaht and hahd,” as he likes to say, down the stretch of last season. A game with as good a road first period as Tuesday’s in March or April of last season would have finished 2-1 or 3-1 in the Isles’ favor.

Is coaching the difference this season? Before you hit send on that next “Cappy stinks” tweet, ask yourself that question. More than once.

Is it the injuries?

Brian Strait wasn’t as good as his best from last season even before he got hurt, but him trying to play hurt was a big reason why he struggled after that. Lubo Visnovsky’s absence is the most felt, though — it surprises even me to type this, but Visnovsky is basically irreplaceable in this group of defensemen. He’s the best puck-mover on the corps, he allows Andrew MacDonald to not be on the top power-play unit (and thus not play in every big situation, and thus be better) and Visnovsky is a very, very steady presence on and off the ice.

He’s a guy who says very little but has a lunch-pail attitude. He shows up, works hard, cracks a few jokes and goes home. In the world of Hockey Realiyu, guys like that are valuable. He’s certainly helped make Thomas Hickey a solid regular.

Also, there’s basically no way to acquire a player like Visnovsky in the middle of a season. Defensemen are impossible to find as it is. Defensemen who fit the way the Islanders want to play, with speed and accuracy, are nonexistent on the trade market.

So here we sit. There’s a big hole in the organization in regards to defensemen ready right now. Matt Donovan, who had another ugly outing on Tuesday, is the best of the bunch.

Is it the players?

There are some surprising Isles who are now floating a bit too much. Casey Cizikas probably had his worst game in his 60-game NHL career, and he knew it. He sat at his stall on Tuesday night, just about fully dressed in his uniform, until the place had nearly cleared out, staring off into space, wearing a scowl.

The fourth line has been a big reason why the Isles are so top-heavy now. Cizikas, Matt Martin and Colin McDonald/Brock Nelson haven’t played with the effectiveness they brought last season. Capuano said he may change the bottom three lines and the PK combos for Thursday, and I’d bet that if McDonald is ready to return, you’ll see what a healthy McDonald can do for that line.

I guess that doesn’t qualify as a change, but perhaps a rejuvenation. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Josh Bailey aren’t working with Frans Nielsen, so I’d think you’ll see Bouchard and Michael Grabner swapped on the middle two lines to get some Grabner-Nielsen magic back.

One more dose of Hockey Reality vs. Twitter Reality. Twitter Reality says Capuano is a dope for limiting Grabner’s minutes. Hockey Reality says you have to do something to earn minutes, and Grabner hasn’t done much of late. Perhaps a change will help him as well.

Is it the GM?

Snow made a bold move to acquire Thomas Vanek, hoping to upgrade the top line (he has) and shake his team out of their inconsistent stupor (he hasn’t). I don’t see Snow mortgaging more of the future to get Ryan Miller, unless it’s a workable deal -- and I’m thinking Sabres GM Darcy Regier will demand a big payment for Miller that the Isles won’t want to make.

Given the uncertainty with Visnovsky and Strait and the lack of viable depth defensemen within, I am surprised Snow hasn’t made a small deal for a serviceable defenseman. Maybe that market is too pricey as well.

So, that’s the breakdown. This is a team that should be better, everyone can agree. They’ve shown they can be good enough to be a top-eight team in the East. They’ve also shown they won’t do the things to make them good enough. It’s a puzzler.

And, lastly, since I am asked -- or told -- this on occasion: Twitter Reality says it’s my questions that make the Islanders accountable and if I don’t demand answers, the GM and the coach and the players won’t feel any heat.

Hockey Reality? I’m writing this in a hotel near Raleigh/Durham Airport, eating a takeout salad while watching “Law and Order: SVU.” Thanks for thinking so highly of me, but that’s not the way it works.

Isles practice is at 1:30 today. I’ll have a report from there later.
 

Tags: islanders , jack capuano , evgeni nabokov , kevin poulin , lubomir visnovsky , brian strait , casey cizikas , thomas vanek

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