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Test of leadership for Isles, Tavares
TORONTO -- A few thoughts on the latest blah performance from the Islanders here on Tuesday night:
-- The players kept the doors to the locker room closed for a few extra minutes after the game. They did the same thing after the loss in Columbus 10 days earlier. It wasn’t exactly a cure-all then, and I think these players-only meetings can be a bit overblown at times.
Nearly every Islander was at his stall when we were let in, some with more shell-shocked looks on their faces than usual. I don’t imagine there was a huge dressing-down from John Tavares or anyone else who might have spoken, or that any of the coaching staff read the team the riot act immediately after the game ended.
Having said that, I think there is something of a leadership void right now. Tavares is the unquestioned leader, but his alternate captains, Kyle Okposo and Andrew MacDonald, are not big on speeches, nor are they long-time veterans of the league.
The only two real vets on the team, ones who would be heard if they spoke up, are out. Evgeni Nabokov and Lubomir Visnovsky are also not traditional leaders, but they carry weight in the Isles' room. Nabokov may not have been playing well when he was hurt, but you could tell the impact he had when Tavares spoke after Saturday’s game, saying how important Nabokov is to the room.
It’s not irreversible. It’s a real test for Tavares and you can see and sense the weight this has on him. I think it’s accounted for some of his fumbled plays at times. His first couple years were marked by the frustration of trying to do too much on the ice. He’s dealing with it on and off the ice now, and that’s a lot, even for a wondrously talented and mature 23-year-old.
-- The defense needs . . . something. All six D who played on Tuesday stayed at their stalls longer than anyone, with a few animated discussions. They are a ragtag group right now. Garth Snow has had trouble finding a decent defenseman at an affordable price, but maybe even trading for a veteran, third-pair guy to give his group some options would be worth it.
If Visnovsky can return within, say, three weeks -- a big if still -- then they might not need a change. But there was a lot of retreating on Tuesday by the younger defensemen, starting with a poor first shift by Thomas Hickey and Aaron Ness. Watching Ness trying to keep his feet while wrestling for position with David Clarkson highlighted one of the long-term problems with having Ness and Matt Donovan play through mistakes. It’s OK to have one of those rookies learn on the job, but when it’s two, that really limits things.
-- The Josh Bailey-Frans Nielsen-Colin McDonald line wasn’t bad, mostly because of the straightforward game McDonald plays. With Michael Grabner there, it was a lot of pivoting and circling and giving the puck away high in the zone. For that reason, if I were Jack Capuano, I’d move Kyle Okposo (one point in seven games) back down to Nielsen’s right on Friday, and have Thomas Vanek go with Tavares and Brock Nelson.
As for Grabner, you can debate whether scratching him was the right move, but I think he’ll be back in Friday. Who sits? In my lineup, I’d try a night without Peter Regin. He wasn’t bad on Tuesday -- his line, mostly with Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, generated the most chances of any line, but didn’t finish. So perhaps Nelson drops down to center the third line and either Grabner or Clutterbuck gets a crack on the wing with the top guys.
-- Even with a fully healthy forward group, the defense is the area that’s worst. If that means the Isles adjust their game to having the third forward higher than usual on the forecheck or Kevin Poulin covers up every loose puck he can find, so be it. Capuano has his system and the way he wants his team to play, but this is emergency mode now, after five straight road losses and 2-6-0 in the last eight.