If an New York Islanders fan had come up to you and said that the team would be 10th in five-on-five goals in the league, eighth on the power play, three points out of the playoffs and floating around fourth in the Atlantic division, I think most would jump on that opportunity.
As a whole, the Islanders have played much better than last season. The defense was upgraded, the scoring has come from more than just the first line (most of the time), Rick DiPietro was finally demoted for Kevin Poulin, and Nabokov has been a little hit-or-miss, with some off-performances followed up by some excellent play. Perhaps most importantly, he has given them a chance to win every night, providing they score some goals upfront.
So wherein lies the issue with the team?
To start with, the defense has been better than last year but are still suffering from inconsistency. They are lacking a true first-pairing set of defensemen, and an overabundance of puck-moving forwards.
Any team would take the combo of Mark Streit and L'ubomir Visnovsky, two of the top-scoring defensemen in the league, but there's a catch. While Viznovsky and Streit will earn you a lot of points, neither are particularly impressive in their own end. They get the job done, but also take a huge hit on their plus/minus rating, as they are quick to release their man and their zone coverage is lacking (Streit especially, with regard to the latter).
When the Islanders lost both Brian Strait and Matt Carkner to injuries, they had taken a huge hit in terms of their stay-at-home and shut-down defensemen. Both flew under the radar, silently going about their business and being very responsible in their own end, for the most part.
You could point to Travis Hamonic and say he's an excellent defenseman and good in his own zone with an offensive upside, and you'd be right, but his plus/minus tells a different story at minus-13, second-worst on the team. He's good in his own end, but seems to only equal that with bad giveaways at times.
Andrew MacDonald is more of the same. Rivaling his own responsibility is his tendency to make errors at the worst time, and he has struggled mightily to hold the puck at the blue line when it matters.
There is no more evidence needed for this than simply looking at the Islanders five-on-five goals-against average per game—it's second worst in the league.
Some may point out that Nabokov hasn't been particularly strong this season, but if you take away the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh losses (7-0 and 6-1 respectively) where he was all but hung out to dry by the team in front of him, he's been effective, and most importantly again, he has given them a chance to win every night.
We come to the final issue, which we will touch on briefly. Jack Capuano's coaching has sometimes been questionable at best. We see lineup matches at home where we should have the advantage but end up with a matchup such as Rick Nash being defended by Thomas Hickey.
To Hickey's credit (who is a much smaller but still sound defenseman), he played the much larger and experienced Nash very well that night, but it was a matchup that should never have happened.
In the hockey world, coaches are usually the first one pointed to at the signs of trouble, whether it has to do with some oddball lineup changes (Boulton in for Ullstrom in the Ranger game), trouble in dealing with the press or seemingly not having players ready on a few occasions (coming out flat only to be saved by a kick in the rear end from Dough Weight).
We also have the problem of lines not finding a defined system that works for them. Of the four offensive lines two of them have a defined system. Our fourth line (which in my opinion may be one of the best fourth lines in the league) works very well at forechecking and cycling the puck, maintaining zone time and scoring chances off of the cycle, while wearing down the other teams' offense and defense. Our first line primarily scores off the rush and due to John Tavares' ability to create time and space seemingly anywhere in the offensive zone.
The other two lines are a mishmash of players who are neither physical enough to forecheck or particularly good on the rush—minus Michael Grabner, who is having a decent year for himself minus some unwarranted criticism.
Finally, add the questionable development of some players such as Nino Niederreiter, Capuano has seemingly limited life left here, unless he finishes the team close to or in the playoffs this season. That being said, I doubt we see him fired before the offseason, even if the team tanks the rest of this season.
He has taken this team to the best coaching record in nearly six years since Ted Nolan in 2006-2007 with a .480 win percentage.
We are at a point where the Islanders need a complementary top-scoring right winger to slot in with Tavares and/or another to solidify the second line, and also a finalized top-pairing defense who can play with the league's best forwards and be responsible for breakouts in their zone.
They need an experienced and winning coach who can work systems into the second and third lines that work for those players' skill sets.
If the owner of this team is serious about making a move to Brooklyn with a good team who has an excellent chance of winning, this offseason is the time to spend and make moves.
The Islanders are positioned very well to spend; they have a deep prospect pool and the cap space to do it. With the upcoming lowering of the salary cap, some teams will be looking to unload players to get below the cap, and that's when the time to round out this team will come.
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