It hasn’t been a good start to the season for the Islanders. They’ve lost four of their last five. That included a blowout 6-1 loss to the Lightning on Tuesday and a gut wrenching 3-2 shootout loss to the Flyers last night. A game which they led 2-0 before the Flyers scored twice in the last 7:05 to tie it. That included a game-tying power play goal from Matt Read with under a minute to play.
One of coach Jack Capuano’s most trusted forwards was in the penalty box. Casey Cizikas took a hi-sticking minor penalty and could only watch as the Isles’ penalty kill didn’t get the job done. After returning, he got into it with Brandon Manning with the two getting matching minors for roughing with four seconds left.
If not for some superb saves from embattled number one goalie Jaroslav Halak, the Islanders lose the game in overtime. He was under siege after Jason Chimera took a holding minor that handed the Flyers a four-on-three power play with two and a half minutes left. It was a firing gallery for the four dangerous Flyer shooters featuring Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek. All four took turns firing tough shots on Halak who gave his team a chance with a couple of point blank stops on Simmonds and Voracek.
It went to a skill competition. In it, Giroux scored the only goal when he literally faked Halak out of his pants with a forehand triple deke to give the Flyers the win in the second round. Islanders’ captain John Tavares was tentative in the top of the third with an aggressive Michael Neuvirth snuffing out his move with a poke check to end it.
The latest defeat made the Islanders 4-6-1 through 11 games. They sit seventh in the Metropolitan Division with nine points. The Rangers, Penguins and Capitals have already built a nice cushion.The Isles trail the Rangers and Pens by seven and the Caps by six. The Flyers are up to 13 points. The Devils have 11 with a two-goal comeback in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Panthers giving them a point on Thursday. Even the Blue Jackets have played better hockey. They’re 4-3-1 with the same nine points in only eight games. They don’t score but also don’t give up much.
The same cannot be said for these Islanders who have already allowed 34 goals. With their “three-goalie system” complicating matters thanks to keeping Jean-Francois Berube on the roster, it has made for an uncomfortable situation in Brooklyn. While Berube has yet to play, neither Halak or backup Thomas Greiss have taken the bull by the horns. Each goalie has posted identical .908 save percentages and the same amount of wins (2). Even the goals-against-averages are similar with Halak at 2.94 while Greiss has a 2.87. That’s simply not good enough to win consistently in a league where offense is up.
It’s not all their fault. The Islander defense has been miserable. They’ve gotten unsteady play from Travis Hamonic, who’s a team worst minus-seven along with anchor Nick Leddy. Also a minus-seven with just four points (1-3-4). Calvin de Haan is a plus-six but even was victimized in an embarrassing five-goal loss at Barclays Center to a Tampa team that was humiliated by the Rangers. Fans chanted “Fire Capuano!” throughout in game number 10. The scary aspect is that had they not signed veteran Dennis Seidenberg who has played well with four goals and two helpers, the blue line would be in even worse shape.
To be honest, the chant was a bit unfair. He’s the same coach that finally got them past the first round last year before they were beaten by the Lightning. Ten games doesn’t make a season. However, when you’re ranked near the bottom in goals allowed per game (3.00) and are in the middle of the pack in offense with 2.73 goals-per-game, it’s alarming. Their special teams are also a mess with the power play tied for 23rd worst at 12.5 percent and the penalty kill has dropped to 17th at 81.4 percent.
The problem for the Isles is they’re going through an adjustment period. When management decided not to bother offering Kyle Okposo a contract and let Frans Nielsen go, they took a big risk. Some would say ‘awful risk.’ So far, losing two of their core players who were a big part of the team scoring and were instrumental on both the power play and penalty kill has hurt them big time.
Replacements Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera aren’t performing. On paper, Ladd seemed like a good signing to replace Okposo. A respectable top six forward who’s won multiple Stanley Cups and is capable of scoring 20-25 goals and 50-plus points, Ladd hasn’t fit in yet. He hasn’t found any chemistry with Tavares leaving Capuano to throw darts with his lines. Josh Bailey is a nice player but shouldn’t be on the top line. Shane Prince is a depth forward. That he was tried with Tavares is mind boggling.
When asked by MSG’s Stan Fischler about the effort level, Capuano didn’t pull punches. He called out players but not by name and kind of threw general manager Garth Snow under the bus.
“That’s my concern. Where are we gonna get the point production from? We took 134 points out of our lineup that we lost. Now we gotta find a way. Everything gets magnified. I get it,” he pointedly told reporters after the loss.
The third player that was allowed to leave was Matt Martin. A popular Islander who completed the fourth line with Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck, who ironically was selected to take the first shot in the shootout. That line made the Isles go. Replacement Nikolay Kulemin hasn’t been bad. But he’s only got three assists and no goals in nine contests. Kulemin is a different style player who can skate and obviously doesn’t pack the punch of Martin on the forecheck. It’s not the best fit. Both Cizikas and Clutterbuck each have a goal and four assists.
What really hurts is the lack of production from the new guys. Neither Ladd nor Chimera have lit the lamp, totaling four assists so far. That is inexplicable. Anyone with a pulse knew they couldn’t replace the versatile Nielsen, who doubled as a solid face-off guy behind Tavares while being an effective penalty killer and good all around player who Capuano trusted in every situation.
Okposo was Tavares’ running mate. They had instant chemistry and were a great duo. Last season, Tavares led the club in goals (33) and points (70) while Okposo paced them in assists (42) while his 64 points ranked second. Nielsen was third with 52. Four Islanders scored at least 20 goals or more including Brock Nelson, who wound up with 26. He’s been okay so far tied with Tavares for the team lead in points with nine. Bailey has contributed seven.
After that, there’s a dramatic drop off. The other Isles’ forwards are struggling with consistency. Former first round pick Ryan Strome got off to a decent start but remains at two goals with three assists. Since returning, Prince is 2-2-4 in six games. Solid production. But with Ladd unable to score and Chimera still without a goal, there’s not much going on.
Anders Lee has been a big disappointment with only one goal and no helpers in 11 games. He is coming back from an injury. Maybe it’ll take him some time. 2015 first round pick Anthony Beauvillier looks like a keeper. He’s slotted into the top six and has a goal and four assists in nine games. They held him out Thursday. If the organization is thinking about sending him back to juniors due to the nine game limit, it might be a mistake. Are they that cheap? He’s clearly been one of the bright spots. As for Mathew Barzal, he’s played two games and will be sent back to Seattle of the Western Hockey League.
The Islanders find themselves in an early hole. With home games against the surprising Oilers and the Canucks on the horizon, their character will be tested. Teams have gotten out of the gate slowly before and recovered. However, the players who are under performing must be better. The Isles are a team that needs consistent production from everyone. They need to outwork opponents. That’s what their fans expect. That work ethic has been missing which might explain the attendance last night. They drew over 11,000.
Is Capuano justified? Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to say. Referencing the players who are no longer around won’t help the situation. However, this is the roster he was given. So far, it’s failing. At some point, he can’t be nice forever. Jobs are on the line. Mainly his if it doesn’t get fixed. He’s lasted a lot longer than anyone ever thought. The longest tenured coach in the Metro Division is Capuano. Every other team has made changes. The Isles have remained loyal to him with Snow in his corner.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens over the weekend.