Islanders lacking offensive punch for Tavares

Thomas Hickey, John Tavares

New York Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey (14) leaps in the air with New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) after Tavares scored the winning goal in the second overtime period of Game 6 of an NHL hockey first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Florida Panthers in New York, Sunday, April 24, 2016. The Islanders defeated the 2-1. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

So far, the Islanders are off to a slow start in ’16-17. Unable to hold off the Sharks who were fresh off a 7-4 loss to the Rangers, they fell to San Jose 3-2 at Barclays Center Tuesday night.

Now 1-3-0, their only win came in overtime 3-2 over the Ducks on a beauty from Josh Bailey in Saturday’s home opener. That in itself was a struggle with the Islanders blowing a one-goal lead with a minute left in regulation on Ryan Getzlaf’s tying marker. Brock Nelson and captain John Tavares scored to put them up 2-0. But the Ducks rallied on goals from Cam Fowler and Getzlaf.

In losing to the Rangers and Capitals away from home to start the season, it put them behind. A five-game home stand followed. A victory over Anaheim was a good start with Bailey undressing the Ducks to get the winner at 54 seconds of overtime from Nick Leddy and Cal Clutterbuck.

Even with San Jose back up Aaron Dell making his NHL debut, they were unable to muster enough offense to win a second straight on home ice. In truth, the Sharks are one of the league’s elite teams who should be strong contenders again.

If there was a positive, 2015 first round pick Anthony Beauvillier scored his first career NHL goal to tie the contest in the second period. The 19-year old forward has been a bright spot. With no real number one right wing for Tavares to play with, coach Jack Capuano tried the versatile Beauvillier with the Isles’ best player and Bailey. It paid dividends with Beauvillier scoring his first from Bailey and Tavares.

Anders Lee followed 2:10 later with his first goal giving the Isles a 2-1 lead. The 26-year old is one of the keys to the season. He followed a 25-goal, 41-point rookie year with 15-21-36 last year before getting hurt and missing the playoffs. With Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo gone, the Islanders are counting on Lee, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome to supply offense. All three are capable. It’s more about consistency.

The Islanders blew a one-goal lead for a third straight game allowing goals to Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski, whose tip in front came with 2:11 left in regulation. Pavelski’s delay of game minor penalty handed the Isles a power play with 1:06 left. But they were unable to cash in despite pulling starter Jaroslav Halak for a six-on-four.

With home dates left with Arizona Friday, the Wild Sunday and the Canadiens next Wednesday, they can still make it a successful home stand and build momentum. In fact, they’ll play another five in a row at home following a visit at the Penguins Oct. 27. So, the Islanders can really take advantage of the schedule at a place they’ve had success at.

The question is is there enough scoring punch to help superstar center Tavares. Andrew Ladd was a good addition in the off-season. A former captain who has won two Cups, the 30-year old is a gritty in your face player who should mesh well. Thus far, it hasn’t worked with Ladd minus a point in the first four games. Once he gets comfortable, that should change. The Isles are counting on him for production.

Jason Chimera was also added for depth. A character player who possesses good speed on the fore-check and can be a threat on the penalty kill, the 37-year old vet has two assists. That Capuano tried him with Tavares is puzzling. He’s not skilled enough to play on the top line. Chimera is suited for a third line checking role. He picked up the primary assist on Lee’s goal last night.

For the Isles, it’s about outworking opponents. That’s how they’ll be successful. Still boasting a effective fourth line anchored by mainstay Casey Cizikas and crusher Cal Clutterbuck, Nikolay Kulemin has been a good fit so far replacing Matt Martin. While not ideal, his speed gives the line more of a scoring threat. He narrowly missed a goal yesterday.

The problem is younger players such as Strome can’t be a non-factor. The 23-year old former fifth overall pick (2011) must be more consistent. One shot and a minus-one in just 14 shifts (10:31) won’t cut it. More was expected of a talented player who put up 50 points (17-33-50) and two goals and two assists in the ’14-15 regular season and postseason. He plummeted to 8-20-28 in 71 contests last year even going down to Bridgeport. At some point, they need to find out if he can make it.

Mathew Barzal has gotten into only one game. Despite a promising preseason, he has been a healthy scratch three times. If Capuano is gonna play Alan Quine  (8:53 in 13 shifts) so little, what’s the point? Shane Prince has also played just two games. What exactly is the thinking?

You could say the same for the Isles going with just six defensemen while keeping three goalies. Yes. Halak has gotten three of four starts with Thomas Greiss getting the other. Jean-Francois Berube is third on the depth chart. They obviously like him. But unless there’s a trade coming, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Meanwhile, the organization opted to go with experience on the back end. In inking Dennis Seidenberg late following a good World Cup for Team Europe, they sent back Ryan Pulock. A 22-year old first round pick in 2013 who impressed when he was recalled last Spring. At some point, he’ll be up and get into games rotating with Seidenberg. It doesn’t make sense to carry six D.

Travis Hamonic is off to a bad start. The shutdown defenseman was minus-two last night making him a team worst minus-seven along with partner Leddy. They’re supposed to be much better. The blue line is supposed to be a strong suit for the Isles with Calvin de Haan and Johnny Boychuk rounding out the top four with the underrated Thomas Hickey on the third pair with Seidenberg.

The biggest issue remains who plays with Tavares. Let’s face it. He had a great sidekick in Okposo, who signed with the Sabres. The Isles didn’t even attempt to keep him. Tavares and Okposo were a potent 1-2 punch. He was that right-handed shot that Tavares could rely on. Nielsen was a strong second pivot who did everything well. Now a Red Wing, he should become a fan favorite in Hockey Town.

The Isles are counting on Nelson to replace Nielsen. He’s off to a good start with two goals and two helpers. Having only missed one game the last two years, the 25-year old center totaled 46 goals and 82 points. He was disappointing last Spring going 1-4-5 in the postseason. He has the tools to become more consistent.

Still, you look at the roster and unless Strome fulfills his potential or either Beauvillier or Barzal stick, where’s the help for Tavares? In two years, he can turn unrestricted. That’s not a long window. The Isles’ 2009 first overall prize has been everything expected. A bonafide star who has carried his team. It was his goal that sent them to the first second round since ’93. He tied the game and won it to beat the Panthers. A signature moment.

At 26, Tavares is entering his prime. He currently is in the second to last year of a deal that pays him $6 million in both ’16-17 and ’17-18. The cap hit is a bargain at $5.5 million. In two years, he’ll get his payday. A player who has put up 208 goals, 265 assists and 473 points over 514 career games could be even better with more talent. Something the Islanders haven’t provided. The 24 playoff games in which he’s gone 11-11-22 are proof.

What if he was surrounded by better talent? Might the hometown Maple Leafs be attractive in the summer of 2018 with headliner Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner? It’s worth wondering. Tavares has never been about himself. But rather the Islanders logo. But at what point is enough enough? If they don’t get the players and become serious contenders in ’17 and ’18, he could leave.

Something the organization and its fans don’t want to think about.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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