Backchecking: Six Games In — Is This What You Expected?

John Tavares is Separating himself in stats from the rest of the boys in blue. Can they respond enough to help him elevate the Islanders?

It is 6 games into the 2011-12 NHL season and our Islanders are 3-3. Average. a .500 hockey team. Is this what you thought would be the team at this juncture? Did you feel we were better then this, or worse? Or is this about where the Islander should be at this point?

Im trying to be objective. I was just as disgusted and dejected last night as was on opening night. It is easy to look at the Panthers who have now beaten us twice in the 6 games and say those are two wins we should have had. It is easy to look at the season thus far and say the Islanders are not playing the way they should be.

But in my attempt at objectivity, I think the Islanders are playing about where they should be playing at this point. An average team that is still searching for its way. There are also several other factors to consider.

A brief analysis from my cheap seat…

Goaltending
The combination of Montoya and Nabakov has thus far been very strong. The last 6 games have been an eye-opening experience for how the team can fair with stability in the crease — something I dare say Rick DiPietro has not brought during his time on Long Island. He is always a miss-cue away from a loss, or an injury away from a season in the NHL basement. By having netminders who limit their movements and are a stop the puck first types of goalies, rather then DiPietro’s play the puck first history, the Islanders can avoid the fear of the crease that most of us have felt over the last several years. Nabakov much have been on the phone with DiPietro however before last nights loss to the Lighting as his first bad choice to play the puck behind the goal lead to a goal. But, over all there have been strong efforts giving the Islanders a chance.

Rick DiPietro is going to be coming back from his concussion however — and that is something that returns the concern to the Islanders goaltending situation. His obvious inability to remain healthy means that having three men on the roster who can be goalies is critical. If DiPietro can get a few dozen games in, and can limit his movement and puck handling — something he has never done — it would not be so bad. But that’s just it. Has he grown up, or is he still a diva?

Defense
There is no question the Islanders need an upgrade to the blue line.

Travis Hamonic is showing some growing pains in the early going, but clearly he will be a long-time anchor on the Isles blue line and justifiably so. He is very young, and still learning, so the growing pains come with the territory.

Andy MacDonald looks a bit off kilter thus far, and I think much of it has to do with his own injury history. The Islanders may want to consider letting him get some scheduled games off on a strategic basis. He take s scheduled days off, but I am wondering if that is enough. I am not expecting A-Mac to be as strong this season if he is going to play with what he has called “tightness” all season. Ty Wishart can be an effective short term call-up as can Dylan Reese should A-Mac need a bit more time.

Mark Striet is getting his timing back to be sure. Having him on the power play is a god send. And that aspect of the game is coming back faster then the defensive side. I have too many give-aways at times and general flat footedness. I think much of that has to do with the aforementioned game speed that Mark has missed for over a year. It will take several weeks for him to catch up fully, but I believe he will be fine.

Eaton and Mottau are bottom pair players who can be hit and miss. I have seen both make strong plays and they have also left me scratching my head. Steve Staios is an upgrade over Bruno Gervais and if he can keep himself going, he is a good find for Garth Snow & Co.

I would not advocate dealing away our defensive prospects, or A-Mac or Hamonic, but for the team to elevate its game, an addition would be helpful. Perhaps it might be as simple as the return of Milan Jurcina. The team would do well to have a big body added, and the Islanders were much better with Jurcina in the line up then with him out of the line up. Something to consider…

Offense
Other then the top unit, and some flashes from Michael Grabner and Frans Neilsen, I am having trouble figuring out what the problem is. This is supposed to be a how-powered offense with a simple dump and chase type of strategy. The skill set of this team is not crossing the blue line with speed, with the puck to try to out maneuver opposing defenders. The Islanders may have tweaked Scott Gordon’s system under Jack Capuano, but make no mistake; this is a skating/forechecking team. That is the working strategy in the games that have the Islanders winning this season — and last. Where it differs from Gordon is situational creativity — where players who see an opening to do something unique can, and should take advantage.

John Tavares is clearly developing into a significant threat. At this point, he is on pace for a huge season well over 100 points. He will bring Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau along for the ride, and that line at this time should remain in tact — even when Nino gets back. There is no need to mess up the only line that is consistently generating anything.

The problem is that Neilsen, Okposo and Grabner seem to be relying too much on Grabner’s speed — always looking for the home run play instead of the smart play, and I believe they are forcing it too frequently. They should be more selective in using that speed — and make more an effort to play a steadier attacking game. In the case of Kyle Okposo, I am not sure he can become a steady 25 goal scorer. He is showing himself to have some real ability, but he is not buring his opportunities consistently. Michael Grabner needs to take lessons on breakaways, because if he can bury even half of the chances where he is in alone, he would have 50 goals per season.

For Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau and Brian Rolston I see three different issues. Rolston is the least problem — but I can see frustration as he plays with the other two, and I think it is effecting his game. Comeau is maddeningly inconsistent. He keeps getting away from the two things he needs to be doing to be effective. Checking. Shooting. Those are the two elements that got him to 24 goals last season. Right now, he is a passenger. Josh Bailey is just not doing enough of anything. I am not certain at this juncture if a change of scenery is needed, or he needs to be scratched for a handful of games. If there were two players I would consider trading to upgrade our defense it would be these two players. But I would need to get my asking price — I would not deal either for just anything.

The 4th line is as advertised. Reasoner has been solid. Jay Pandolfo — a long shot to make the team, came in and played well and earned his deal. Matt Martin is rapidly growing into a very effective roll player.

Coaching
I question some instances where Cappy puts Josh Bailey on the ice, and I wonder if the Islanders would have been better had they been quicker in playing what they more or less knew would be their starting 20 earlier in pre-season. Other then the camp invitees, Nino and Strome — was there any other prospect who was going to win a spot? We had 5 pre-season games, and at least 3 of those last 5 should have more or less had our current squad on the ice so these kinks could get marginalized.

Its very early in the season, and right now, while there have been 3 head scratchers, there have been 3 good games. Overall, this season should be about further development, and finding a steady, even style of play throughout the year. If the Islanders can strive to limit losing streaks to no more then 2 games, then the team will remain in the hunt and competitive.

Ultimately, John Tavares has the team on his back and carrying the team. But he can’t do it alone. There are two pieces that I believe will change the dynamic, but we wont know until they arrive. Jurcina on the blueline, and Nino on the forward unit will add two big bodies to the roster that right now are missing.

It is still a dangerous time. The short term goal to make the playoffs can not — must not — out weight the long term goal of building a consistent, year in, year out cup contender. Garth Snow has to remain very strong on his building from within plan. Panic should not be a part of the equation. I think Barry Melrose said it best in a recent pod-cast I was listening too. While he felt the Islanders would be better, this was not their season just yet. But he used a term to describe our franchise that I never thought I would hear anyone in the NHL use. Stability. He said Snow has been very much about installing some stability there. That there were no more of the crazy, wild trades the would constantly disrupt things. While some questions remain, the team is going in the right direction. They just to get some consistency going to take the next steps.

 

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About the Author: A graphic designer who loves the game....and knows that age has slowed him down — but the passion is there. Islanders fan since the 70s, Dad, Husband and Coach of the Flying Tiger's Email: andre@filamentdesigns.net Twitter: http://twitter.com/FilamentDesigns

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  1. anthony c says:

    dipietro is, has, and will always be a diva.