Islander Goaltending a Controversial Topic

Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Rarely has the state of New York Islander goaltending been such a controversial topic. Both goalies have been the subject of praise and harsh criticism at times during the season, and so far neither seems able to get into any sort of groove as the team continues to stumble.

Isles coach Jack Capuano shocked many observers when he went with established but struggling veteran Evgeni Nabokov over backup Kevin Poulin for Saturday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Poulin, whom many had felt would get his second consecutive start for the first time this season, instead watched from the bench as his team dropped their third consecutive road game 5-2.

I can’t say I’m clear on why the Isles went back to Nabokov on the heels of such a strong performance from Poulin on Thursday in Carolina. If he were younger, and if I didn’t know any better, I would think they were showcasing him, trying to shop him around. That seems unlikely; as bad as the goaltending situation may seem now, removing Nabokov from the equation would be disastrous without a serious upgrade coming back.

One possible explanation is that this is an attempt to keep Poulin from getting shell-shocked during a particularly bad stretch for the team, bringing him along slowly and giving him a chance to get his feet under him before throwing him all the way into the deep end. It wouldn’t do much for the team if that were the case and he could helping instead of observing, but from a long-view perspective it could be a conceivable – albeit shaky – theory.

Something else to consider: even the best goalies are only as good as the defense corps in front of them. Look at any of the top end goaltenders around the league, not just currently but in the past. Now look at who their top six was comprised of. Martin Brodeur had Stevens, Daneyko, Niedermeyer and Driver. Patrick Roy had Foote, Lefebvre and Blake. Billy Smith had Potvin, Morrow and Langevin. Current rumor mill frontrunner Ryan Miller, during better times, had McKee, Regehr, Campbell and Warrener.

On the flipside of this is a guy like former Bruins goalie Andrew Raycroft. He broke into the league behind a strong Boston defense and won the Calder trophy. Circumstances made him expendable and the team was able to swap him to the far inferior Toronto Maple Leafs (for an unknown, unheralded fellow named Tukka Rask) where he promptly began his spiral down into obscurity.

I’m not suggesting any of the great goalies mentioned above would have been flops had it not been for great defensemen and solid systems bailing them out. Nor am I saying those with less success can point solely to a lack of defensive coverage as the reason for their woes. But the vast majority of the time you can’t have one without the other.

The point of all this is that any goaltender coming into the Isles organization is at the mercy of a very young and injury-depleted group. Some people look at a goalie’s performance and incorrectly assume he could step into any situation and play just as well, or better. In some situations that is undoubtedly the case. I think Garth Snow, as a former netminder himself, knows this as well as anyone and is in no hurry to swing a major deal involving key prospects and/or roster players for a guy who may make absolutely no difference in the team’s effectiveness. Any team, like a chain, is only as good as its weakest link. Replacing one or two links is a waste of time if several others are broken.