The Islanders will reconvene on Friday after their week-long break with a load of questions about how they can rediscover the form that led them to a 15-7-2 start to this season.
They’re currently in a 6-11-2 funk, having lost five of seven after the three-day Christmas break. Only two of those six wins were in regulation.
There is ample time — 39 games, to be precise — for the Islanders to rebound and make the postseason. Let’s look ahead and see what’s to come and what the Islanders can do to turn this season back on the right path:
Making up ground in the second half of the season is like climbing a sand dune, as the Islanders found out last season.
They are only a point out of a playoff spot and have 14 of their final 39 games against Metropolitan Division opponents, starting with Saturday’s game against the Rangers.
That’s a lot of chances to make up ground. Or fall further behind, if you prefer a dimmer outlook. But the opportunities are there.
Losing the frailty
Doug Weight called his team frail during its five-game losing streak. Their late comeback against the Devils on Sunday aside, this Islanders team simply plays from behind too often.
According to research by Sportsnet’s Dimitri Filipovic, the Islanders have trailed 41.1 percent of the time in their games. Only the 10-win Sabres have trailed more this season. The Islanders have led 26.8 percent of the time, 23rd in the league as of Wednesday.
Last season, the Islanders were blowing leads and points late. This season, with much of the same personnel, they can’t seem to keep from falling behind and staying there.
It’s not a matter of turning into an anti-offense team to protect leads or stay close late in games. If anything, the Islanders of the first two months of this season were better possession teams because they had the puck more and generated more offense. Weight stands behind that theory.
“We’ll have more scoring chances if we make smarter plays with the puck,” he said last month. “You’re not always going to be flying around the [offensive] zone, but when you make the other team defend and chase, that’s the goal.”
The Islanders’ top two lines have been superb this season. The Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk pair has been good, though it dipped as the team started to dip, likely because of whatever injury Boychuk was trying to play through before he realized he needed a break.
A lot of the rest of the lineup has been in flux as Weight and his staff search for consistency. The answers to at least a couple of problems may be in Bridgeport.
Anthony Beauvillier is there now and, even playing only three games, seems to be invigorated by his first AHL demotion. Josh Ho-Sang was a healthy scratch on Wednesday for the Sound Tigers. Although he has recorded 12 points in 15 games in the month since he was sent down, it seems that Ho-Sang has more maturing to do in the eyes of the organization.
But these are desperate times for the Islanders. If Ho-Sang and Beauvillier both return, the bottom six could have what it needs to avoid being a black hole of possession and offense. Whether it’s a Beauvillier-Brock Nelson-Ho-Sang line or Beauvillier plays with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck — or Nelson goes with the latter two — the Islanders can improve their bottom six from within.
On defense, Boychuk’s health is key. Calvin de Haan won’t be back, so this essentially is a six-man group now, with Dennis Seidenberg there in case of emergency.
Christopher Gibson could be a more stable solution in goal than Thomas Greiss, who would easily clear waivers with two more years left on his deal. Gibson hasn’t been lights out for Bridgeport, but changing things in net seems like a must.
Garth Snow certainly is texting and talking with his fellow general managers, but things have not shaken loose with six weeks still to go until the trade deadline.
The Islanders could have claimed Cody Franson on waivers from the Blackhawks, but the sense around the team is that they prefer their younger defensemen. That would seem to apply to most of the pending free-agent defensemen who might be available. The other problem is that there’s only three teams that already are in sell mode (Sabres, Coyotes, Canucks), and they don’t seem to have what the Islanders are looking for on defense. Erik Gudbranson is available from Vancouver, but he’s more of a throwback-style defenseman and not the most mobile.
Teams will start to fall out of contention in the coming weeks, and more players will hit the market. The Islanders have extra first- and second-round picks from the Flames, and Calgary is on the playoff bubble in the Western Conference. The question for Snow: Will there be anyone with some term left on a deal who is worth giving up a potential lottery pick, either the Islanders’ own or Calgary’s?
The Islanders have seven games in the 12 days until the All-Star break, five on the road. This stretch will say a lot about the rest of the season and whether the Islanders are the high-flying team that raced out in October or November or the fragile one that sank back in December.