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 Who’s to Blame for Islanders Current Mess?

Photo by Robert Kowal

While no one expected the Islanders to have a shot at the Stanley Cup this season, many were hopeful the team would make a legitimate run at a playoff spot. The teams’ strong finish to last season gave management and fans alike something to look forward to. Key defenseman Mark Streit was returning to the lineup, in addition to a healthy Kyle Okposo. Assistant captain John Tavares had a full season under his belt, and a young core that included Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau also had another year of experience. Throw in some veteran leadership with the likes of Brian Rolston, Jay Pandolfo and Marty Reasoner- and the Islanders seemed ready to take that next step heading into the season, and no longer be a doormat for opposing teams.

What the hell happened?

Just 18 games into the season, the Islanders find themselves in yet another free fall similar to last season. The Islanders are now in the midst of a 2-12-0 tailspin in which they have been outscored 65-24. The team has been outscored 12-0 in their last 7 periods of play, and were embarrassed in front of a national audience last night in Pittsburgh when Sidney Crosby returned to action. Needless to say, the Islanders have been downright dreadful.

Who’s to blame? Management? The coaching staff? The players? Truth is, all have some responsibility for the team’s performance thus far. More importantly, what needs to be done to fix this mess? Trading some draft picks for Alex Ovechkin would be nice, but unfortunately Washington Capitals GM George McPhee will not likely go for that. So the question then becomes: What can be done? Remaining positive is not going to be enough. Many believe heads need to roll.

While GM Garth Snow didn’t exactly have a great off-season, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the ax to fall on him. Garth has had a tough job attracting free agents, and probably relied a bit to much on the development of his young players heading into the season. Still, when was the last time Snow has made a deal of significance to impact the team?

Do the Islanders fire their head coach again? Current head coach Jack Capuano seemed to have the team turned around last year after taking over for Scott Gordon, particularly late in the season. The players responded well to Capuano’s approach behind the bench, which was much different than Gordon’s. Has the team now tuned him out as well? Under the circumstances, I think Jack has done a fine job and deserves to stay. Who do you replace him with anyway?

The leaders in the locker room must start taking responsibility for the teams recent lackluster play- and take action to correct it.  Tavares can’t do it all by himself. The veteran leaders on this team that contribute much less on the ice need to start showing their worth, or be shown the door.

The Islanders young core of players were supposed to take the next step in their development this season. Many are not doing their part. The most maligned culprits include Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey. Between the three of them, they have played in 48 games and have only a single goal and 5 assists to show for it. Most nights they’ve been practically invisible on the ice. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

What’s been most disturbing has been the Islanders recent uninspired play. The team has lost some spirit and toughness with the departures of Zenon Konopka to Ottawa, and the demotions of both Michael Haley and Trevor Gillies to Bridgeport. While no one is making them out to be world beaters, the Islanders do seem to be missing some of the intangibles these guys brought to the table.

Some scoring help wouldn’t hurt either. I guess you could say that for most teams, but 35 goals in 18 games (last in the league) is just not going to cut it. Okposo, Comeau and Bailey were being counted on in a big way to fill the net this season, and have been the biggest disappointments on the ice for the team. I like all of these guys, and think they possess a lot of talent. I honestly don’t know why they have been unable to produce. Nevertheless, the time has come to shake up this Islanders roster, and a change of scenery for some might be best.

The time is now for Garth to earn his paycheck. It’s still early, but the clock is already ticking on the Islanders season.

 Islanders/Devils Postgame Video

Video from the Islanders locker room following the Isles 2-1 shootout loss to the Devils at the Nassau Coliseum on Sunday March 6th, 2011.

   

 Islanders Must Stay Focused

As the snow continued to fall on my way to the Nassau Coliseum, it was probably not the best night to be driving in to see the Islanders final game before the All-Star break. While the snow limited the attendance to only 4,976 last night, the Islanders got off to another slow start- something that has plagued them for much of the season. Perhaps some of the players were already thinking about the upcoming break in the schedule.

The Hurricanes Eric Staal scored two goals in a 1:38 span in the second period to lead the Carolina Hurricanes over the Islanders by a final score of 4-2.

While head coach Jack Capuano praised forward Michael Grabner’s play after the game, he was one of the few bright spots for a team seemingly in desperate need of a break. In the post game press conference, head coach Jack Capuano said he “found it disturbing that some players were selfish for the first time, leaving goaltender Rick DiPietro out to dry on a few occasions, and not playing within the team concept.”

The recent stretch leading up the the All-Star break certainly may have contributed to the players becoming “drained mentally and tired”, as Capuano put it. However, when the team returns after the break, Capuano insisted they will get back to business, and play within the team concept and system.

He went on to say that the team will not continue to go on losing games, and reward players that do not deserve it. If Capuano stays true to his word, perhaps guys like Grabner and Nielsen will begin to see more ice- only time will tell.

It has been a tough season thusfar for the Islanders, particularly with the rash of injuries the team has had to endure. One positive thing Capuano stressed after the contest last night was that the team does work extremely hard. A good sign considering these young Islanders will continue to be tested the rest of the way.

While it is no secret that the Islanders are not the most talented bunch in the NHL right now- the potential is there. However, It is essential that all the players buy in to the team concept, and do not ignore the little things. This starts with the young leaders of this team, guys like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Josh Bailey. They must continue to work hard and lead by example.

Things like taking short shifts, being aware of the situation, and knowing who is on the ice are all significant. Not only do they make a big difference in the outcome of games now, but they are also considerable in the development of becoming consistent National Hockey league players. The importance of staying focused on their responsibilitites on the ice without making excuses can not be overlooked.

Let’s hope the Isles can respond with hard work and focus necessary to carry them the rest of the season.

 Islanders Should Expect More Changes

This is a difficult time for Islanders fans as their club has endured its longest losing streak in 20 years. Yes, John Tavares was not even born the last time the Islanders went winless this many times in a row, which took place back in 1990.

The Isles have lost 13 straight games, an embarrassing baker’s dozen of defeats that has seen the team outscored 48-18. Goal scoring has been a huge problem. The team has scored two or fewer goals in 11 straight games and is 0-for-24 on the power play over their last six contests. Obviously, this is not a recipe for success.

The slump has already cost Coach Scott Gordon his job with Jack Capuano taking over behind the bench on an interim basis. The Isles are 0-2-1 under Capuano so far, although the new coach is still getting a feel for his players and what he can expect from them.

This winless streak has been hard on a young Islanders team and the locker room almost feels more like a funeral home these days.

Take Rick DiPietro’s comments after Sunday’s overtime loss to Atlanta. “If I can say one thing, throughout this whole thing is guys care,” DiPietro said. “I hope people realize that. This eats at us. This isn’t fun for anybody. It keeps guys up at night and makes us sick to our stomachs. This is unacceptable for us. We want to start winning some games. We came in to this season with the credo that there would be no excuses and we’re not going to make any.”

After Saturday’s loss to the Panthers, Dwayne Roloson challenged his teammates. “As a team, we need to take it upon ourselves and just look at ourselves in the mirror and look at ourselves and say have we done enough to win a hockey game tonight,” Roloson said. “Whether it’s blocking shots or getting sticks in lanes, stopping a puck that’s on the line or going to the net and getting one in off your butt that goes into the net to try to change the way this thing is going right now.”

If Islanders fans think the coaching change is the end of Garth Snow’s moves, they are most likely very mistaken. Expect Snow to make some moves to shake up this team. As Capuano said, there are “too many passengers” on this team and Snow will seek to move some of them to improve the situation.

There are a few players who are untouchable. The young nucleus of the team will be staying: John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo are not going anywhere. Neither are prospects like Calvin de Haan and Nino Niederreiter. Matt Moulson has been all heart and the team’s most consistent goal scorer. Mark Streit is the Isles best defenseman and it would make no sense to trade him now when he is hurt and the team couldn’t get value in return for him. No team would assume Rick DiPietro’s contract even if the Isles did want to trade him.

Other than that, anybody and everybody on the roster may very well be free game. A big and dramatic move would be preferable right now because this team desperately needs to be shaken up—the atmosphere needs to change in a big way.

The Isles biggest need now is goal scoring. Through 19 games, Matt Moulson has eight goals and John Tavares has seven, but no other Islander has more than four. Sure, Okposo will help when he gets healthy again, but that may not be until late December of even January. Even so, the club needs more scoring than any one player can provide.

On defense, the Isles have been decimated by injuries. Streit hasn’t suited up all year. Milan Jurcina remains out as do Andrew MacDonald and Jack Hillen. Mike Mottau got hurt in the game against Atlanta when he took a puck to the face and his long term status is still not known. The team’s overall lack of depth means they can use help on defense too, at least until some or all of their injured players return.

Expect Garth Snow to make a move soon. His team is hurting and it obviously needs a shake up. Snow will not sacrifice his long term rebuilding program, but something needs to be done to improve this team right now. As bad as things are going right now, the situation isn’t hopeless. The last time the Islanders were winless in 14 straight games was February and March of 1990. They did manage to somehow sneak into the playoffs that year. You see, stranger things have happened.

 Isles Show New Attitude Despite Injuries

The season is only five games old, but already, the New York Islanders have demonstrated that they are a different team than they have been in recent years. The Islanders have overcome injuries to key players and have shown resilience and confidence that was lacking. It provides hope for the rest of this season and beyond.

Most experts predicted another poor finish for the Isles this year. Then, before the season even started, the club lost their top defenseman and power play quarterback in Mark Streit and top young forward, Kyle Okposo to shoulder injuries. Streit is expected to miss six months while Okposo should be out of action for between two and three months. Then, leading scorer John Tavares suffered a concussion in the season opener and new top defenseman James Wisniewski was suspended for two games for making a lewd gesture at Sean Avery of the Rangers.

Despite all of these obstacles, the Islanders are off to a 2-1-2 start. They have been able to come back in games when they fell behind and shown a new determination. Here are a few reasons the Isles are off to a much more positive start this season.

1) The development of young players: With GM Garth Snow’s plan to build through the draft, the Isles knew they needed some of their recent draft picks to improve in order for the team to become contenders for a playoff berth. After five games, the club’s two leading scorers are Josh Bailey, a former first round pick now in his third season, and Blake Comeau, a former second round draft choice now starting his fourth season with the Isles. Both of them have picked up their games early in the season. Bailey has always had good hockey sense, but now he’s become stronger and is able to fight for pucks and win positional battles he was not able to do in the past. Comeau finished strong last season and according to Coach Scott Gordon, he has learned how to keep his game smart, simple and to head to the net when the puck is in the offensive zone.

2) Improved defensive depth: Snow added three free agent defensemen this summer and all three are playing key roles early on. Wisniewski has stepped up and is filling in as the team’s top defenseman in Streit’s absence. He is leading the team in minutes played per game and is seeing regular power play time. Despite the suspension, “Wiz” is a leader in the locker room and is playing solid hockey on the ice. Milan Jurcina scored two goals in the club’s recent win over Colorado, while Mark Eaton has been steady in his own zone. Add the return of oft-injured Radek Martinek and even without Streit in the lineup, the Islanders have more depth on the blueline than they’ve had in recent years.

3) The return of Doug Weight: Weight played less than half a season in 2009-10 and scored only one goal. He was fighting through a painful shoulder injury that severely limited his effectiveness on the ice. Now, after surgery, the team captain feels reborn. He can make plays on the ice that were too painful for him to make last season and that means he can lead by example, not just in the locker room. Weight is seeing regular time on the point on the power play and is teaching youngsters like Tavares and this year’s top pick Nino Niederreiter how to become effective professional hockey players.

4) The return of Rick DiPietro: Sure, it’s early in the season, but Rick DiPietro is healthy and back in the lineup. While his play has been uneven, a healthy DP provides optimism for the franchise. Dwayne Roloson has been effective early and the combination of DP and Rollie give the Isles a strong 1-2 punch in net. Missing most of two seasons seems to have matured DiPietro and made him appreciate the life of a professional hockey player. If he shakes off the rust, the Isles will have two very good goalies going forward this season.

5) The system is established: This is the third year of Scott Gordon’s coaching reign on Long Island. The team needed time to adjust to Gordon’s aggressive forechecking system. Now, it’s been played on both the NHL level and in the Isles’ minor league system for more than two full seasons. The players are comfortable with it and Gordon himself seems comfortable and established as an NHL coach. Also, Snow has added pieces to the puzzle like Michael Grabner, Rob Schremp and Mike Mottau, who fit the system well and should have a chance to thrive in it.

Outlook: Are the Islanders a playoff team? It’s still too early to tell. But are they a better team than we’ve seen here on Long Island in recent seasons? Absolutely. How far they go will be determined by the team’s health and the continued development and consistency of their younger players. But early on this season, it appears hope has returned to the Nassau Coliseum.


 

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