FREEEEEEDOM! Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Heading into October, the New York Islanders were ready to take the next step forward. After reaching the playoffs for the first time in six seasons in May 2013, expectations were high for Long Island’s hockey team, who appeared better on paper than they were during their miracle run in the final two months of last season. Nearly thirty games into 2013-14, the team has fallen flat.
The Islanders sit at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division in early December, exactly where nobody saw this team before the season began. New acquisitions, such as Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, were expected to push this team off to a hot start, the team’s veterans, such as Josh Bailey and Michael Grabner, were counted on to build off of another “break-out year,” and the organization’s rookies, such as Brock Nelson and Matt Donovan, were expected to push other roster players for ice time.
This hasn’t happened, and the Islanders are struggling, in part, because of it and they’re doing so while straying from the blueprints that the foundation of the current team was modeled around.
Remember all of the talk surrounding the offseason, and then the start of the season? The word often used was “competition,” always referring to the roster that Garth Snow and Co. had put together. The Islanders entered the season as a “deep” team; specifically, the team had an abundance of forwards – too many for the team to ice for any individual game. Somebody was going to have to sit every night, and on paper, it was never going to be an easy decision; however, that was, supposedly, the beauty of the Islanders.
Every night, the Isles were going to ice the best team possible. Every night, the Islanders would have their pick of which to dress and who to scratch, and in theory, the guys on the ice were going to have to earn it. An internal roster “competition” would keep the Islanders fresh and at the height of their game because the guys on the ice were playing for, and earned, their “right” to play.
Nearly thirty games into the season, the Islanders have continued to roll with fourteen forwards on their active roster – two of them sitting in the press box each night, as expected; however, an argument can be made that not every player has “earned” their “right” to step on the ice, especially over some of the guys sitting on a nightly basis.
Critics look at the current lineup and see Grabner, who has been held without a goal since opening night. They skim through the players and notice Bailey, who hasn’t scored in over ten games, and Bouchard, who has not only failed to stick on the team’s first-line alongside John Tavares, but has failed to boost this team offensively. Peter Regin hasn’t recorded a point since late-October, and all of the aforementioned guys have been nearly invisible throughout one month of games. Other than a few [rare] scratches, though, the team’s struggling forwards continue to receive ice time on a nightly basis.
The same critics then look at the press box. They see a familiar face in Eric Boulton, who, despite his own skeptics, has played remarkably well and hard for the team in six games, and a not-so-familiar face in Nelson, the team’s 30th overall pick in 2010 who has already stepped up in, and excelled with, a role alongside the Islanders franchise star. Despite leaving a solid impression in almost every game each has played in, both seem to be the forwards most likely to sit in the press box.
And last night was no different. As the Islanders suffered another defeat – 5-1 to the Blues, and their eighth loss in a row – Nelson and Boulton watched on, while the team’s forwards failed to generate anything more than one goal and a few ill-timed penalties.
Look: none of this is meant to suggest that playing Nelson and Boulton over the team’s current forwards would change the team’s fortunes, but it’s fair to question why these players are sitting while others are noticeably having a tough time. The initial perception was that the press box was for the under-performing, yet it’s the guys on the ice who have led this team to eight-straight defeats.
This isn’t a cry to change the team, but a plea to give certain players a shot. The team was built for internal competition, no? So how about some competition?