Plenty of blame to go around in Islanders' plunge
There was plenty of excitement, plenty of promise for the Islanders heading into this season. The team's first playoff appearance in six years -- spurred by a balanced attack and determination to play a hard-edged, competitive game from start to finish -- seemed to be a harbinger of good things to come.
So what has happened? Why are the Islanders right back where they've been for most of the last decade, looking up at their divisional rivals with a miniscule chance of reaching the postseason even as the calendar turns to December?
Here are a few key areas in which the Isles have failed, leading to their 8-15-3 record heading into yesterday's game with the Capitals:
GM Garth Snow made two big moves since last June's draft, one on the draft floor (Nino Niederreiter to the Wild for Cal Clutterbuck) and one just over a month ago (Matt Moulson, a conditional 2014 first and a 2015 second to the Sabres for Thomas Vanek).
Perhaps the move that could have been the biggest was a near-miss for Snow: He tried to get goaltender Cory Schneider from the Canucks in the days and hours leading up to the draft, offering Niederreiter straight-up for the goaltender. Canucks GM Mike Gillis opted to take the Devils' No. 9 overall pick for Schneider, who would have solved a big chunk of the Isles' problems thus far with their sub-par goaltending.
Clutterbuck will be a contributor going forward, but injuries have hampered his ability to be a consistent presence.
As for the Moulson deal, Vanek -- aside from an injury forcing him to miss five of the 14 games since his arrival -- has been a good fit with John Tavares, but far from the fan favorite that Moulson had been for years. If this season continues on a downward trend, Snow likely will flip Vanek for a decent return, but that will seem like small comfort after the big splash of the deal.
Snow declined to speak on the record. He had said at the time of the Moulson deal that he was not happy with the way the team was playing and was looking to shake things up. They are 4-11-0 since, and now the deals Snow is trying to make -- sources indicate that he's been trying hard to acquire a goaltender and a minutes-eating defenseman -- are difficult in-season.
The defensive corps has lost Lubomir Visnovsky and Brian Strait for more than a month and has a few other regulars playing through nagging injuries. Saturday, Calvin de Haan was the third rookie Isles defenseman to make his season debut. Matt Donovan was going to be the lone rookie on an experienced blue line that could absorb his mistakes, but Donovan needed to learn quickly with Visnovsky out and Matt Carkner and Radek Martinek filling more regular roles than anticipated.
But an equally large problem has been the collective play of all six defenders when the puck is in their zone. Losing battles in corners, in the slot and back pressure from the forwards flying in too deep -- creating assignment chaos -- all have contributed to goals against, not to mention the sub-.900 save percentage of the goaltenders so far.
"It's everyone," Frans Nielsen said of the defensive failures, which also apply to the league-worst penalty killing unit. "One guy isn't going to win or lose us a game. We got [those expectations this season] by everyone doing their job, playing their role. It's what we have to get back to."
Tavares is again among the NHL's leading scorers, and he's proven that he could have a couple of plastic bubble-hockey figures on his wings and he'd still score. The fourth line, anchored by a much-improved Casey Cizikas, has also contributed of late.
That leaves the middle two lines as the ones that need to pick up the scoring pace. Lines centered by Nielsen and either Peter Regin or Brock Nelson have contributed four goals in the last 12 games. Michael Grabner (no goals in 22 games) and Josh Bailey (no goals in 15) provided offense when Tavares couldn't carry everyone on his back down the stretch last season.
Many observers wondered if removing Moulson, one of a great many good guys in the Isles room, would alter the good balance. It hasn't. What has, perhaps, has been the absence of a veteran leader or two -- Mark Streit departed in the offseason and Evgeni Nabokov and Visnovsky have been out of the room due to injury -- to remind the team what it needs to focus on.
"We get along real, real well. That hasn't changed," said Eric Boulton, who plays sparingly but is cited as a supportive voice in the room. "If a guy makes a mistake, someone else has to step in and pick him up. That's what a team is all about. That's what's missing right now."