Hockey From The Blind Side, Toughness And Team Identity

I would assume that Matt Martin will be returning to the lineup tonight against the Capitals. At least, the return to Bridgeport of Micheal Haley would lead me to assume so.

The question in my mind is if Haley brings so much to the team to the point in which Scott Allen made reference to Haley’s impact on the team, why send him back down? Yes, it might surely be my old school hockey mentality, but the reality is, on many a night, the New YOrk Islanders have lacked team toughness that was very much present the last half of last season. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it has been a glaring problem at times even Garth Snow has commented on.

I am not sure if it is the “image” from ownership that seems to believe that a team in the NHL today can survive without team toughness or if this is coming from some other corner. Trevor Gillies and Micheal Haley brought this aspect to the team last season, and it has sorely been missing this season. You can profess all you want about fighting not being necessary in the NHL, but you are fooling yourself if you think this is a universal opinion that will be adopted by all.

Let me be clear here. Matt Martin has done a tremendous job standing up for his teammates and being the physical presence every night. I will take nothing away from him, and I feel that he has continued to develop into a player who has earned a place in the lineup each night. Without Martin, I don’t even want to imagine what this team would be on a given night.

Hockey, of course, is not all about the fighting. I would never debate anyone on this point. However, it is a physical sport that involves a great deal of hitting, territoriality intimidation, and toughness. You can’t get around that basic reality. A team’s identity can be molded and built in a number of ways, but if you are pushed around every night and teams are taking liberties against your best players, that identity is not going to stand up over an 82 game season.

There have been flashes of the guys standing up for one another and taking exception to hits or other actions that needed to be addressed. I can certainly recall a few instances of this happening and being quite proud of the boys. Unfortunately, these responses have been few and far between and, frankly, done by guys who should not have to be taking on that role. John Tavares, for example, should not be the one who finds himself having to retaliate or get in someone’s face to make a point. His job is scoring, and if the team had a physical presence more than a single, Matt Martin, teams would be a lot more tentative in going after a Tavares or a Frans Nielsen.

I didn’t catch a great deal of the Ranger game, but I did notice Micheal Haley’s presence. This, of course, is hard to ignore or miss. The guy simply Brings it every night. He has the kind of presence and style this team needs and has been missing on many nights. Yes, it is my opinion, but I know it is one that is shared by many other folks in Islander country.

I will go as far as saying that since the departure of Zenon Konopka, something has been missing from the play of the Islanders that was there last season. As I have said a number of times here, there is a leadership element that just is not there most nights. Blowing leads so often and seemingly just collapsing is simply a characteristic the Isles should not be showing at this stage of the rebuild. Confidence, of course, is always a big factor, but it goes beyond that intangible. It is hard to put my finger on it, but something that was present in the play of the Islanders has been absent on too many nights. I really feel that Konopka had a great deal to do with it.

In any event, why Micheal Haley was sent down will remain as one of the many mysteries surrounding decisions that have been made in regard to player matters. To me, keeping Haley up and in the lineup with Matt Martin would be a shot in the arm that might translate into a strong finish. The playoffs might be out of range, but this team needs to finish with 80 or more points to have this season mean anything. Something needed to show a marked improvement to a very patient fan base, and Micheal Haley, at least, brings energy and excitement to the lineup when he takes the ice.

But, then again, this is why I am not a General Manager or coach of a hockey team. What do I know? I can only give you my “blind observations”, and I plainly feel that there has been an element missing from the play of the Islanders that was there the last half of last season. It’s something that will need to be addressed in the off season, and ownership or management cannot proceed with their heads in the sand believing that a hockey team can exist in the NHL and the Eastern Conference today without team toughness.

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