The New York Islanders are through the first month of the 2013-14 season and finished October at 4-5-3, barely hanging in second place in the newly formed and poorly named Metropolitan division of the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Since the start of November, back to back victories have them placed a little more firmly at 6-5-3 and has led to a cool-down of sorts on social media as fans have stepped back off the ledge and are ready to proclaim their team’s stake to greatness once again.
While premature to make such a claim to greatness, the Islanders in most observers opinions are not a bad hockey team nor are they a very good one either. Middle ground in the NHL’s muddled pack is where you find them properly positioned on this very day.
With some continued maturation on the defensive end and strong play out of Evgeni Nabokov and Kevin Poulin, this team is destined for a playoff berth. How far they go after that is anyone’s guess. In previous seasons, we have seen surprising teams make runs to the finals that would have been deemed improbable at best (Carolina in 2006, Anaheim in 2007 come to mind immediately).
The team went back to school in October and provided a puzzling display at both ends of the rink that dazzled as well as confused. The grades are in and today, we take a look at the forwards. Defense and goaltending will follow in the coming days.
12 – Josh Bailey : 14 GP, 4-4-8, 27 Shots
Bailey had a strong start to 2013-14, notching 3-4-7 in his first 7 games with 14 shots on goal. His chemistry with Frans Nielsen is clear and the two combined early on to make the Islanders offense sustainable. But he has struggled mightily since, collecting a single goal in his last 7 games with 13 shots. He has also been guilty of some missed defensive assignments, particularly in the neutral zone. An uneven start that almost mirrors the team’s inconsistency early in the new season.
Grade : C+ , mostly due to early surge, needs to find game to game consistency and be more responsible in the defensive end of the ice. Shoot more is always the mantra when it comes to Bailey’s play.
96 – Pierre-Marc Bouchard : 13 GP, 2-4-6, 18 shots
Bouchard started his Islanders career very slowly, even getting scratched by head coach Jack Capuano for one game. The fans have not bought into his hard work and determination, especially given his small stature, but he really has come around lately and played much better hockey. Proving to be an asset in the transition game, his passes and awareness have been stellar as of late. The offense will come as the lines gel more over the course of the first quarter of the season.
Grade : B , Maybe the expectations were overblown when he was signed in the off-season but over the course of the last 8-9 games, has done his job admirably.
36 – Eric Boulton : 2 GP, 0-1-1, 2 shots
Boulton is on this team for one reason and one only: to be the antagonistic physical presence when matching up against some of the bigger teams in the league. He has appeared against Buffalo and Philadelphia, getting into one scrap with Zac Rinaldo of the Flyers.
Grade : INC , There is no logical way to give him a fair grade for limited appearances.
53 – Casey Cizikas : 14 GP, 0-1-1, 6 shots
Casey transformed his game when in junior hockey at the urging of his coach, who said he would never make it in the NHL as a 40 goal scorer. Maybe he was right. Offense is not what the Islanders depend on Casey for. It’s his spark plug style of play, always seeming to go at 125% every shift and banging bodies on the forecheck with his 5’11, 187 lb frame. Has become a better defensive player and can be counted on for the penalty kill as well as late game situations now.
Grade : A- , He gives the Islanders exactly what they ask for and has taken his game, in my opinion, to an entirely new level this season. Will be a valuable asset to the 3rd/4th line for years to come. Isles best faceoff man (51%).
15 – Cal Clutterbuck : 11 GP, 1-1-2, 20 Shots
Cal started slowly, missing almost all training camp and the first 3 games of the regular season with a serious gash on his thigh. For the past 5 games, he has looked like what everyone expected however. A better than average skater, good forechecker and bangs bodies with the best of them. We saw flashes of offensive ability with his snipe against the Rangers. More is expected as he is now at the proper conditioning level to make an impact.
Grade : B- , All is progressing on schedule to Cal becoming the fan favorite we all thought he would be upon his arrival to Long Island. Also starting to fit more into the locker room mentality, meshing with teammates. Offense will come to the tune of 15-18 goals with the proper linemates.
40 – Michael Grabner : 12 GP, 2-6-8, 27 Shots
With 2 assists in his last 9 games, it’s safe to say Grabner is struggling. He has not scored since opening night in New Jersey and has continued to show his breakaway ‘yips’ this season. It matters no more that he generates the chances, he needs to bury them to help the team. Seemed to me more effective in his brief stint playing with captain John Tavares but with the arrival of Thomas Vanek, that opportunity is gone. Could be trade bait for defensive or goaltending help if the need arises.
Grade : D , Not producing what the Islanders need him to, which is crucial as they do not heap tremendous responsibility on him in other areas. Counted on to provide more than average secondary scoring and not getting the job done.
17 – Matt Martin : 14 GP, 2-0-2, 29 Shots
What would the Islanders 4th line be without Martin? He brings consistent energy and a much-needed physical presence in what is one of the smallest lineups in the entire league. Once again leading the league in hits, as he has over the past two seasons, is directly linked with Cizikas in that he does exactly what the Islanders pay him to do. Last couple of games he has even been starting on a line with Clutterbuck to establish physicality right from the opening puck drop.
Grade : A- , Everything you want a 4th line banger to be and has worked extremely hard to improve his skating, which is very noticeable since the start of training camp.
13 – Colin McDonald : 9 GP, 1-0-1, 8 Shots
McDonald has missed the last 5 games with a hip injury and even though he is skating in practice, does not seem quite ready to return just yet. Or is he? He was not playing well at all in the early part of the season, seemingly just skating around with no rhyme or reason. Realizing the injury could have been suffered late in camp and be having an impact, he gets a pass……..for now.
Grade : INC , Not much to grade him on, but he is spared a bad grade due to the aforementioned possibility of the injury playing a role in early uninspired play.
29 – Brock Nelson : 9 GP, 1-3-4, 7 Shots
What more could you ask of the Islanders young rookie center. Great training camp earned him his spot on the first 23 man roster. Scratched for 5 games but never quit working and kept holding his head high, waiting for his opportunity. Never thought of as a huge offensive threat, he has played very responsibly in all three zones and lately has joined with Cizikas and Martin to form what could be the best 4th line in hockey if all pans out. Would like to see him and Bailey stop being so gun-shy about shooting and just throw pucks at the net. Deceptively good shot.
Grade : B , A long career awaits Nelson in the blue and orange. Responsible, smooth and most importantly, big. Size is needed on this roster and Nelson has certainly not been pushed around so far by stronger opposition in 2013-14.
51 – Frans Nielsen: 14 GP, 8-8-16, 32 Shots
Chosen by this website as the Islanders player of the month for October, there is nothing that Nielsen cannot or did not do for the team in the first month. Easily the MVP ahead of the captain and more publicized John Tavares, he provided consistent scoring, plays the point on the first power play unit and is one of the most responsible defensive centers in the entire league, often matched up against the opposition’s best line. If he played for a team with a larger media profile, would be a candidate for the Selke award annually.
Grade : A+ , Like Cizikas, but in different style, has taken his game to a whole new level. Could be one of the most ‘un-tradeable’ assets the Islanders have at this given time.
21 – Kyle Okposo : 14 GP, 4-13-17, 33 Shots
Probably the toughest Islander to grade and I will attempt to very briefly explain why. One game he could look absolutely lost and having mostly negative impacts on his line and the very next night look like the second half Okposo of 2012-13, locked into absolute beast mode. Picked up 3 assists in a great overall performance Saturday versus the tough Bruins. Could be finding chemistry with Tavares and Vanek……or it could be another mirage. See what I mean?
Grade : B , Gets this grade based on statistical performance but with everything taken into account, could have easily been a C- or an A+.
16 – Peter Regin : 14 GP, 1-3-4, 18 Shots
Regin was, in my opinion, the most underrated acquisition of the summer for Garth Snow. He could not stay healthy in Ottawa and was flying way under the radar. Islanders fans should now be seeing and liking what they have. A very capable penalty killer and skater with moderate flashes of savvy in the offensive zone. Could play 2nd or 3rd line on this team and provide the same level of responsible play to each.
Grade : B+ , Fans clamoring for his benching early in the season are being proven he is down on that list for the time being. Does nothing spectacular, but does very little wrong also.
91 – John Tavares : 14 GP, 6-9-15, 45 Shots
Are you ready for the most unbelievable statistic of the entire first month in the National Hockey League (not just Islanders related)? Tavares leads the team with 24 penalty minutes. His career high is 53, set back in 2010-11. Tavares has learned that some adjusting is necessary to being a captain of a franchise and it has manifested itself in his game at times. Moments when John looks to do too much and gets frustrated, as he did taking a 2 minute unsportsmanlike against Boston, need to be toned down. But there is no denying the sublime talent that exists and those moments that take your breath away. Still locked into the best contract in professional sports and we have not even seen him at his absolute best yet. Gets better each and every day, night, game and season.
Grade : B+ , Does not have far to go to reach the elusive A status. Chemistry with Vanek is coming faster than anticipated and offensive numbers are due to take a big jump.
Acquired from the Buffalo Sabres for Matt Moulson and draft picks, Vanek was a little against the wall just coming to Long Island for a fan favorite. His unrestricted free agency status will loom over this trade until it gets rectified one way or the other. But offensive skill is what he possesses in bunches and he is more of a creator than an opportunist, as Moulson was. Whenever you get the better player in the deal, you generally win. But he has to sign for this to become a real coup for Snow. Just reaching his prime now.
Grade : INC , Not fair to grade him for his performance on the Sabres, as the Islanders are an entirely different team and style. Next month’s report card will be more telling and will give us an established look at how the first line came together and either dominated or was split up. But so far, the signs are encouraging for Vanek in blue and orange.
What do you think about the grades given to the forwards? Think the teacher was way off base or spot on? Comment below and let us know how you feel.
Defense and goaltending up next (I’m sure that will generate a fair share of armchair GM comments. lol)