The Islanders sit outside a playoff spot as we hit the middle of their bye week, one point behind the Penguins with a game in hand — but having played one more game than the Hurricanes and Flyers, who like the Isles have 46 points to Pittsburgh’s 47.
It’s not as dire a situation as it was around the halfway mark last season, but there have been plenty of negatives to fill up our second day of the good/bad/future of this season.
Blame the team defense (see below) if you prefer, but this has been a shockingly poor first half of the year for Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss.
Halak has rebounded of late, even if the results haven’t shown much — he started eight of the last nine games before the break and faced at least 35 shots in all of them. His .904 overall save percentage is below the .909 league average and Halak’s .924 even-strength save percentage is a bit below average for goalies with at least 800 minutes played this season, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Greiss? He’s last in that category with an .898 even-strength save percentage.
Doug Weight has defended his veteran goaltenders with every fiber of his being this season and Halak, a pending free agent, could seemingly be solid enough to backstop a playoff run if the Isles can get their act together in the defensive and neutral zones and stop giving up great scoring chances at an alarming rate.
But Greiss — who signed a three-year, $10-million extension just about a year ago — is basically unplayable right now. Halak was the one shipped out to waivers and the AHL last season. Greiss is headed to the same fate if he can’t turn things around.
The Isles are giving up 3.65 goals per game, worst in the league. How bad is it? That would be the worst goals-against total for any team since 2005-06, when the Penguins (3.78) and Capitals (3.66) gave up more. You have to go back to the wild and woolly 1990s to find a team that gave up that many goals and made the playoffs.
So something has to change. Some things have to change.
Goaltending is one area. In the defensive zone, the “house” — the hockey term for the front of the net – needs cleaning up. Calvin de Haan isn’t a flashy player but he’s smart and secure in his own end. Same with Johnny Boychuk. Their extended absences have exposed some other defensemen in the D zone, Nick Leddy most notably.
Leddy was getting some Norris Trophy love during his hot streak through November, when he was among the points leaders for defensemen. Since Dec. 9, Leddy has no goals and four assists in 15 games and has been on the ice for 24 even-strength goals against to just seven goals for.
“He needs to be a little tougher in his own end,” Weight said recently of Leddy, who has bounced between any number of defense partners with Boychuk sidelined.
Team defense doesn’t just mean the actual defensemen, either. The Isles’ possession numbers have faltered during their 6-11-2 slide, but nowhere more so than in the bottom two lines. Natural Stat Trick tells us that the only bottom-sixer whose shots-for percentage at even strength is above 46 percent (that’s a really bad number) since Dec. 1 is . . . Josh Ho-Sang, who got sent down before the halfway mark of December.
Not having the puck and generating shots means you’re chasing the game, as the players say. Chasing actual other players who have the puck, spending your shift time just trying to keep it out of your net and then dumping it somewhere so you can change.
And it’s been a long, long stretch of games where the third line, usually anchored by Brock Nelson, and the Jason Chimera-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck fourth line have been outshot during their time on the ice.
That’s a lot to change midstream of a season. But Weight and his coaching staff are viewing the current break as the same sort of structural reset Weight had when he took over from Jack Capuano last January. Weight identified a couple of tweaks to make to the defensive zone structure and the Isles quickly responded.
They will need a similar response starting on Saturday.
That third line
Nelson is having a rotten season, fueled by playing without creative linemates since Ho-Sang was sent back down. Some of that is rightly on Nelson, a three-time 20-goal scorer who didn’t make enough of a mark to grab a top-six role.
Sportsnet reported that Garth Snow is starting to shop Nelson, who will be a restricted free agent after this season. The reason Weight hasn’t seriously benched or scratched Nelson yet is because he’s the best scoring option in the bottom six. Trading him, especially for help on defense, means Weight doesn’t have that scoring option at all, even if Nelson and his nine goals haven’t exactly been consistent on offense.
Considering the season he’s had and his pending RFA status, it seems unlikely Nelson alone could command a big trade return.
Weight put together a Nelson-Cizikas-Clutterbuck line at the end of Sunday’s game and it helped produce the tying goal. Perhaps that’s the third line answer for now, with a ragtag fourth line of energy guys getting limited minutes. The Isles need more from Nelson and the bottom six.