After a tough, yet inexcusable loss to the last place Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the New York Islanders took off for the first leg of their 5-game road trip out west beginning on Thursday in Denver. The Isles have been a pleasant surprise thus far, sitting alone atop the Metropolitan Division, but have yet to truly reach their full potential.
Off to a 6-3-0 start, the Islanders have surprised everyone with how much offense they are capable of by scoring an Eastern Conference-leading (tied with San Jose for NHL lead) 35 goals through 9 games, led by Brock Nelson with 6 goals (12 points), John Tavares with 4 goals (12 points) and Frans Nielsen with 4 goals (8 points), including a hat trick against Dallas.
Oct 25, 2014; Uniondale, NY, USA; New York Islanders center Frans Nielsen (51) shoots on Dallas Stars goalie Anders Lindback (29) and scores during the third period at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. New York Islanders won 7-5. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
However, the offense has been carrying the team while Jack Capuano tries to work out the kinks in the defense, special teams and goaltending. With that being said, Capuano may be doing more harm than help while the team wins in spite of him night in and night out. As they prepare for 4 games in a row against playoff teams from last season and a game in the desert to top it off, there are a couple things the Islanders need to work on and stick with if they are to come back to the Island still in 1st place. For a trip this daunting, 6 points is a number I think most Isles’ fans would be thrilled with.
Goaltending is something that has been holding the Islanders back since Jack Capuano has taken over as head coach and early into this season, it’s more of the same story. Through 9 games, neither Jaroslav Halak or Chad Johnson have given fans a reason to feel confident with a lead. Despite starting the season 4-0-0, the goalies should take no credit for that as 3 goals were allowed in all 4 games with many of them being soft goals that have no business being let in. In fact, there has only been one win in which less than 3 goals were allowed and it was 2 by Chad Johnson in Boston so Halak really needs to step it up.
The Islanders biggest problem last season was not being able to hold leads and even with the way the offense has been producing, you can’t expect them to score 4+ goals a night to win. If Halak and Johnson can’t toughen up a bit in net, the Isles have no chance against teams like the Ducks, Kings and Sharks who can all score just as well but have consistent goalie play too.
While our power play has been phenomenal to start the year – another reason the Islanders are in 1st – converting nearly 26% of opportunities, the penalty kill has been flat out awful. The PK unit, at under 68%, would be the worst in the league if it weren’t for the Devils being slightly worse. If they are to compete with top power play teams like Arizona, San Jose and the Ducks, something needs to change and I believe it’s the personnel.
Nikolay Kulemin has played well and I’d like to see him used alongside Frans Nielsen, Johnny Boychuk and Travis Hamonic on the 1st penalty kill line and the 2nd looking something like: Anders Lee, Josh Bailey when he returns, Thomas Hickey and Nick Leddy.
Each of those forwards are quick and solid puck-handlers, which allows them to play aggressively while still able to get the puck out of danger zones. One of the biggest reasons for struggling on the penalty kill has been a lack of aggressiveness allowing teams to set up their power play and pass the puck around until they get an open shot. These guys need to put pressure on the opponent’s point men and try to spread out the offense.
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Defensemen like Hickey and Hamonic are solid defensive players and can be counted on to make the safe play moving the puck out of the zone. I’d split them up and put one each with Leddy and Boychuk, respectively, because those guys are basically the foundation of each PK unit. Both have enough experience and skill to position themselves, use their sticks and deliver timely hits to break up power play setups. Bottom line, they need to put pressure on the point men and clear the crease in front of our net to be successful.
The Islanders will start the road trip without Josh Bailey and Travis Hamonic, both lost to injuries, but are hopeful to get them back at some point during the trip. I’ve already discussed Hamonic’s importance and he should be the closer of the two to returning but that date can’t come soon enough as Brian Strait just simply looks lost out there at times.
Josh Bailey’s spot in this lineup is a little less clear but he surely deserves to be on the ice, probably with Anders Lee and Frans Nielsen. Going forward, these are the lines I’d like to see:
Grabovski – Tavares – Okposo
Strome – Nelson – Kulemin
Lee – Nielsen – Bailey
Martin – Conacher – Clutterbuck
These lines haven’t been used this year but I’d really like to see Grabovski get a chance to play alongside John Tavares who could bring his game to the next level. When Bailey comes back, I believe Casey Cizikas is the one who draws short end of the stick as he hasn’t provided any offensive threat nor does he play with the physicality that Martin and Clutterbuck do.
Speaking of the 4th line, the last thing I want to touch on is Jack Capuano’s use of it. He has this sick obsession with playing the 4th line after the other team scores and it usually just leads to continued momentum for the opponents and more scoring chances – possibly some of the reason the Islanders blow so many leads. Especially on the road, Capuano needs to avoid this tactic like the plague and get his skill guys out there to try and silence the crowd before it’s too late.
All in all, the Islanders are a good team that plays well on the road. If the offense keeps rolling on all cylinders, they stay healthy, play smarter in the defensive zone and the goalies show up, there is no reason the Isles couldn’t win each game on this trip. Of course that is unlikely but if they stick to these points, I believe the boys will come home still leading the Metropolitan Division.