After dropping their fourth straight game in regulation, many Islanders fans are ready, or have already been ready, to hit the panic button. While the New York Islanders got off to a very decent 2-0-1 start, the team has seemingly gone through a number of rough stretches where they haven’t been able to string together consistent 60 minute efforts.
Over the last several years, November has not been a bountiful month for the Islanders in terms of racking up the wins in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Thankfully, November is almost over, but the last few weeks have raised some legitimate concerns among Islanders fans as their team continues to falter during a month that has only featured four New York victories thus far.
Whether or not some Islanders fans choose to rally behind their team is something that cannot be predicted. For a team that showed so much promise during last year’s second-half push and six-game playoff run, it could be unfathomable to some as to how the Islanders are not playing up to the standard that they set for themselves last season. Despite the fact that some Islanders fans might find it hard not to give in to some negativity at this point and time, there is still plenty of hockey left to be played, and time to fix the problems that have been plaguing the team over the last several weeks.
Last year, the Islanders were able to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs because of their special teams. New York’s power-play and penalty kill were operating at a very efficient level – to the point that opposing teams knew that they didn’t want to give the Isles any type of man-advantage, be it long or short.
Although the ’13-’14 NHL season is only about one-third completed, the Islanders’ power-play has not been performing up to par – especially after the departure of Matt Moulson. Moulson was instrumental to New York’s man advantage, and his absence has created a hole, however small, that the Islanders have had to fill. Now, this isn’t to say that the Moulson-Vanek trade was unnecessary or detrimental to the Islanders, but it has created an adjustment period for this young team to say the least.
During the month of October, the Islanders managed to score ten power-play goals and recorded a 25.6% (10/39) efficiency rate on the man-advantage. Throughout the month of November, the drop-off in production on the power-play has become hard to ignore as New York has only managed to score on 10% (5/50) of the man-advantage opportunities afforded to them this month.
Conversely, the team’s penalty killing units are also not performing the way that they did in October. Even though the Islanders penalty killers were performing at an 81% (30/37) efficiency rate throughout October, their fortunes while down a man in November have taken a turn for the worst as the team has only killed off 61.5% (24/39) of the penalties assessed to them.
When comparing the the Islanders’ penalty killing and power-play units during the months of October and November, the difference between their efficiency rates is a stark one. While special teams certainly helped the Islanders reach the playoffs last year, their lack of production while up or down a man is a large reason for the team’s poor results as of late – something that has been especially highlighted during the team’s two separate four-game losing streaks in November.
Injuries To Defense
Nobody can deny the fact that the Islanders are sorely missing Lubomir Visnovsky and Brian Strait.
Visnovsky was an integral part of the Isles’ defensive core last season as he combined with Thomas Hickey to form one of New York’s most responsible defensive groupings. Not only did Visnovsky impart his veteran knowledge on Hickey, he managed to record 14 points (3 Goals, 11 Assists) for the Islanders in 35 games played – with eight of those points (1 Goal, 7 Assists) coming on the power-play. The primary reason that the Islanders did not give Mark Streit the amount of money that he was seeking in the free agent market was because they felt as though Visnovsky could adequately replace what Streit brought to the team.
Streit was never asked to be a defensive stalwart for the Islanders, and it could be safe to say that New York’s management wasn’t expecting Visnovsky to be a shutdown defender when they negotiated a two-year contract extension. However, Visnovsky’s absence has been felt on the Isles’ blueline as well as on their top power-play unit. Without Visnovsky to quarterback the power-play, the Islanders have had to rely way more on Matt Donovan than they probably would have wanted to this season. Not only are the Islanders missing Visnovsky’s veteran experience, they are missing the defenseman that was supposed to replace Streit’s production in the lineup.
On the other hand, some fans might never have expected to miss Brian Strait, but his time away from the team has also impacted the play of the defensive units. Even though Strait missed some time last season, he was a decent and responsible defender in his own zone – one that many forget was being groomed quite diligently by the Pittsburgh Penguins. While Strait might not have been an integral part of New York’s special teams, the Islanders could certainly have used the defender’s talents over the last month.
For as much slack as the Islanders’ defensive core has gotten as of late, fans must remember that the injuries to the blueline have created a situation where the team has had to give more responsibility to defenders that were supposed to be depth options for the Isles this year. Like it or not, the injuries to Visnovsky and Strait have been a hindrance to the Islanders in November, and the team has certainly felt the effects of being without two of their top-four d-men for an extended period of time.
One of the most glaring differences between the ’12-’13 and ’13-’14 New York Islanders can be seen through the team’s current road record. Despite the fact that the ’12-’13 NHL season was shortened by a lockout, New York compiled a very strong 14-6-4 record on the road – something that contributed directly to their success as the team managed to take two difficult five-game road trips and turn them into points gained in the standings.
This season, however, has been a far cry from the road dominance that the team experienced last year. Instead of building on their performances away from the Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders have not been able to string together any type of consistency on the road this year as they have embarked on two road trips (Nov. 5th-10th, Nov. 19th-23rd) this month and have lost all seven of the games from the two combined trips.
While there is no quantifiable measure as to why the Islanders have had such a lack of success on the road this season, their away contests have definitely been one of their biggest bugaboos this season. What exactly it will take to fix this problem is just as much of an unknown, but if New York has any hopes of competing for its remaining 57 games, then they must find their groove on the road sooner rather than later.
Some might laugh at such a surface observation, but the Isles’ prowess, or lack thereof, in the face-off circle has definitely hurt them plenty. Over the last four games, the Islanders have lost the majority of their match-ups in the face-off circle, and that is undoubtedly adversely affecting their offense and defense.
If a team cannot win in the face-off circle, then they are most likely limiting their offensive opportunities and time spent with the puck. In addition, losing face-offs in one’s own zone also limits the opportunity that a team has to get out of their defensive zone and generate offense.
The last four games that the Islanders have played have offered a glimpse into their face-off woes as the team has only won 47.1% (114/242) of its draws. Once again, remedying such a problem is easier said than done, but the Isles’ centers will undoubtedly have to improve in such an aspect in order to maximize their offensive opportunities and reduce play in their own zone.
No Quick Fixes
Whatever might be plaguing the New York Islanders at this moment won’t be something that is solved over the course of a couple of games. Much like the previous two seasons, the Islanders (as a whole) have had difficulties playing a full 60 minutes of hockey – something that is characteristic of a young team.
Last season, the Islanders learned what it took to accomplish some of the goals that they had set out for themselves as a team. In particular, the playoff push that the Islanders underwent illustrated the fact that the team understood the concept of playing persistent and patient hockey under urgent situations. To think that the Islanders could have lost this valuable understanding over a few months is probably doing this team an injustice. It’s certainly there, it just needs to be found.
Who or what will take the Islanders out of their funk is anyone’s guess at this time, but it’s plain to see that this streak won’t be reversed if the team continues to gives efforts of less than 60 minutes. One could attribute blame to the players or the coaching staff, but the Islanders still have some strides to make before being able to consistently compete in the Metropolitan Division.
The ebbs and flows that the Islanders have been experiencing in their game isn’t something that can be instantaneously corrected, nor can one hope to liquidate this problem with a simple switch to the on-ice product or its coaching staff. Part of what makes up the identity of this current New York Islanders team is its ability to learn and endure as a collective unit. However hard it may be to sit tight during this rough patch, there are still more than fifty games left to be played, and if last year’s second-half and Stanley Cup Playoffs have taught us anything, then it is the fact that the Islanders know what type of effort they will need to bring in order to win and be consistent within a tough division.