Better, but not good enough.
That’s the defining sentence of the Isles’ first 48 games of 2011-12 -- they are improved in areas over last season and the two that preceded it, but that hasn’t translated into improvement where it matters most, in the standings.
They have one of the league’s rising young stars in John Tavares, whose personal improvement from last season to this one is the most stark of any good, young player in the NHL. He’s helped raise the games of Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo, too, and Okposo rediscovering his game after a dreadful first two months is a huge boost.
The other bright spots: A defense-first commitment that, when it’s been applied, has the Islanders playing the right style of game to succeed in today’s NHL. The rebirth of Evgeni Nabokov. Matt Martin’s emergence as a smart player who hits a lot, rather than a big hitter who doesn’t always play smart. PA Parenteau’s continued confidence translating into key points. Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald getting better with each game.
But all that has added up to is a three-way tie for 13th in the East with 34 games to go. It’s a near-impossibility that the Islanders will have a shot at the postseason: They’ll need, at minimum, 43 points to have a realistic chance at making it, which is asking a lot of a group that has mustered only 45 points in the first 48 games.
Here’s a few reasons why the Isles are where they are, tied for 25th overall, staring at yet another top-six draft pick:
Tavares has provided it since about mid-November. Others have not. Michael Grabner was due for a dip after a wondrous rookie season, but his missed breakaways feel much more crushing when there are big points on the line. Mark Streit has been better of late, but his decision-making has abandoned him at times, leading to an ugly minus-21 rating. Josh Bailey has shown flashes of being the sort of two-way center who could fill a role here for a long time, but at other times, he's trying too hard to make the cute play.
Eight shutouts in 48 games and an East-low 115 goals has been maddening to the coaching staff, in charge of a team with a decent amount of talent, but it’s not a team that’s needed clutch performances with playoff implications before. They have simply failed in too many important moments to be considered a dangerous team.
Gap-fillers haven’t filled the gaps
Brian Rolston was a salary-cap acquisition, but even his biggest doubters couldn’t have foreseen four goals thus far and very little on-ice impact. Steve Staios and Jay Pandolfo would have been terrific tryout signings on a team with more depth, but they’ve been asked to do more than they can bring to the table. Milan Jurcina (tied for Mr. Minus at minus-23), Marty Reasoner, Mark Eaton ... These were supposed to be capable veterans who did the little things. At times, they do. But not often enough.
The future is not now
Nino Niederreiter missed the first six weeks of the season with a groin injury and a concussion, and his learning curve has suffered. Calvin de Haan made his NHL debut, but he’s not ready yet -- and not healthy, a worrisome development. Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson have helped produce a nine-game win streak for Bridgeport, but goaltending isn’t the Isles’ problem. College prospects Anders Lee and Brock Nelson could be Islanders, but not until 2012-13. Ditto for 2011 first-rounder Ryan Strome. The current team is still two years away from fully realizing its crop of prospects.
There are 28 days until the trade deadline
Garth Snow is having his usual conversations with other general managers as the deadline approaches, but there are no quick fixes available -- the Isles likely would not take on additional salary unless they are firmly in the playoff race, and the crop of attractive chips to trade away for prospects and/or picks is slim.
Nabokov likely wouldn’t fetch more than a second-rounder, which if the Isles are falling further out of it in the next week or two, ultimately would be better than watching a rejuvenated Nabokov sign elsewhere next season. Frans Nielsen wants to stay long-term and Snow wants him here, but he may be the most appealing player the Isles have to deal. Parenteau as well, though the return for a 29-year-old pending UFA won’t be so great.
What changes could be made?
Niederreiter moving up to play the wing with Martin and Bailey to give the Islanders a hard-hitting third line. David Ullstrom coming back up to see if he can provide some scoring on the wing. Perhaps NHL auditions for promising rookies Casey Cizikas and Matt Donovan.
But that isn’t much. This is a team that has to learn how to produce the same effort night after night, and that doesn’t just happen in the current NHL, not with three-point games and veteran teams that have been there year after year. Once you dig yourself a hole, as the Isles did with their 2-10-4 slide in October and November, it’s hard to dig out.