The Islanders have finished in last place in the Atlantic Division four seasons in a row, but I was convinced that this year would be different. I was certain that the Islanders long rebuild would start to pay modest dividends and that they would at least be in the hunt for a playoff spot. That may seem like a foolish belief given their track record, but I had good reason to think they would be able to turn things around.
Instead, they sit in last place in the Eastern Conference with an abysmal 7-11-5 record and a league-worst minus-27 goal differential. It wasn’t supposed to be this way this season.
First, two of their best players are actually playing. Mark Streit, easily their best defenceman, missed the entire 2010-11 season recovering from shoulder surgery necessitated by a collision with his own teammate in practice. Young power forward and team leader Kyle Okposo missed 44 games, also to a shoulder injury. The season prior to his injury, Streit was third on the team in points and led the team in icetime by 5 minutes per game. Okposo was second on the team in points and led all Islanders forwards in icetime. The importance of those two players cannot be overstated.
With both healthy to start the season, the Islanders’ fortunes were supposed to improve. Instead, Streit is on pace for his lowest point total in 4 seasons, while Okposo has only 7 points in 20 games and is on pace for a career low.
Second, their young talent is a year older: John Tavares scored 67 points in 79 games last season and looked poised to improve in his third year in the league. Michael Grabner surprised everyone, and made Canucks fans go into conniptions, by scoring 34 goals in his rookie season while being defensively responsible. Another 30-goal season from him didn’t seem unreasonable. Josh Bailey regressed in his third season, but that happens to young players and, at 22, the potential is still there. Travis Hamonic handled himself well in a tough situation last season as a rookie, putting up 26 points in 62 games from the blue line. And, of course, Okposo is back and healthy.
That’s a pretty good young core. With players like Matt Moulson, P.A. Parenteau, and Frans Nielsen just entering what should be the prime of their careers and highly-touted rookie Nino Niederreiter ready for NHL action, the Islanders looked like they would be a young, exciting team with a lot of potential.
While Tavares had a strong start to the season, his two assists last night ended a 6-game scoring drought and he’s on pace for fewer points than last season. Grabner has struggled at times and is on pace for 9 fewer goals than his rookie year. Bailey has just 6 points and can’t win a faceoff, Hamonic has only 3 points and is a minus-9, and Niederreiter has only played in 4 games after a groin injury in preseason and has no points.
On the plus side, it’s hard to complain about Moulson being on pace for a third-straight 30+ goal season and Parenteau being on pace for career highs in assists and points. But when P.A. Parenteau is one of the low bright spots in your top-six, things have gotten pretty dark.
My third reason for hoping the Islanders would have more success this season was the addition of some older veterans to the lineup to fill the Mr. Miyagi role for the young core. Brian Rolston, Steve Staios, and Marty Reasoner are not the players they once were, but a young team needs veteran players to play depth roles and provide leadership. Rolston was expected to provide a boost to the powerplay and some secondary scoring, Staios was to provide defensive depth and stability, and Reasoner was expected to replace the faceoff wins lost when Zenon Konopka left town and provide some defensive responsibility.
So far, Rolston has just 6 points, with only 1 coming on the powerplay, Staios is a minus-6, and Reasoner is an even 50% on his faceoffs, has just two points, and bleeds goals against.
The fourth reason for optimism was the most important one: I thought they had finally figured out a solution to the problem of Rick DiPietro. At this point, it’s not a matter of whether he’ll be injured, but when. So the Islanders convinced Evgeni Nabokov to actually show up and kept last season’s pleasant surprise, Al Montoya, around as well, for the ever-rare three-goalie rotation. While this would be disastrous for most teams, for the Islanders I thought it made perfect sense.
Somehow, however, all three goaltenders have been injured, resulting in a start for the Islanders’ fourth-string goaltender, Anders Nilsson. Unfortunately, that start coincided with the return of Sidney Crosby to the NHL, and Nilsson got lit up like the tree at Rockefeller Center.
When healthy, Montoya has been very, very good, including this potential save of the year candidate to seal a victory against the Sabres in the third period. The former first round pick has a .928 save percentage and a 2.24 goals against average, easily the best on the team. Nabokov is performing like a league-average goaltender with his .910 SV% and 2.83 GAA, but the real problem is once again DiPietro, whose .885 SV% and 3.44 GAA are just plain bad. Those statistics are also nearly identical to his statistics last season, so it’s not an issue of small sample size either.
While the Islanders would ideally go with a tandem of Montoya and Nabokov for the rest of the season (with Montoya as the starter), DiPietro’s contract will continue to hang over the team, with the internet conspiracy rumours suggesting that there’s an influence from management to get him starts in hopes that he’ll play his way out of not being a good goaltender. I thought they had the problem solved, but it’s hard to make up for an oft-injured goaltender when all of your other goaltenders get injured too.
I had four good reasons to think the Islanders would be better this season. Instead, judging from their season so far, they might be worse.