Islanders: Three+ Takeaways After Coming Up Just Short vs. Philadelphia

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 27: Brock Nelson #29 of the New York Islanders skates in warm-ups prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Nassau Coliseum on February 27, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 27: Brock Nelson #29 of the New York Islanders skates in warm-ups prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Nassau Coliseum on February 27, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal (13). Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal (13). Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

The New York Islanders attempted a late comeback that fell just short on Thursday night at Nassau Coliseum. Here are three takeaways from the loss.

A small group of New York Islanders fans were welcomed back to Nassau Coliseum by one of the worst two periods the Islanders have had all season. The Islanders stunk it up out there through 45 minutes against the Philadelphia Flyers, but in the end, they were only a defensive miscue away from capturing at least a point.

Here are three takeaways from a mostly pitiful, ultimately disappointing 4-3 loss at the Coliseum.

1. Another Poor Islanders Second Period

The New York Islanders have been poor in second periods all throughout 2020-21, anyone who watches the team knows that. But Thursday was maybe the worst of a bad bunch of middle frames this season.

The Islanders spent most of that middle 20 hemmed in their own zone and conceded three goals in the frame because of it. In a game that had such a low-event first period, the Islanders simply couldn’t afford to give away another third of regulation, and they did.

“We dug ourselves a real big hole.” said head coach Barry Trotz in his post-game press conference. “I’m disappointed in our push in the second.”

He’s not wrong, obviously. Barry’s team conceded three goals in the period, but the underlying numbers were even worse than the score reflected. The Islanders were out-chanced 11-3, and 6-0 from the High-Danger areas, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Philadelphia’s 24 total 5v5 shot attempts, and 17 unblocked 5v5 attempts were two of the highest marks the Islanders have given away in any period this season in that game state. These aren’t analytics, folks, they’re just shot attempts, and when shot attempts pile up the way they did in this period it’s a pretty good predictor of goals. That’s why I like to look at these numbers, for those curious.

But what is the fix? That’s the important question in my mind, and one I haven’t heard asked of Trotz yet this season. Being outplayed in middle frames this often is no coincidence. So what’s being done to rectify that? Why is this team so consistently being inconsistent throughout games? Why do they keep going to sleep in second periods, independent of first and third-period results?

It’s a question that needs answers fast. We know the talent this team possesses, and have seen it regularly enough to know they’re too good to just let periods slip away. They did it on Thursday, scratching and clawing back like absolute savages to tie a game that looked all but lost. In the end,  that hole Barry mentioned was too deep, and it cost the Islanders at least one valuable point.

New York Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield (24). Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
New York Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield (24). Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

2. Scott Mayfield’s 2020-21 Season

During the day Thursday a tweet about disappointing 2020-21 Islanders grabbed my eye, and I, foolishly threw in my two cents. The tweet listed Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey, and Scott Mayfield as the first, second, and third most-disappointing Islanders this season.

The first two, I totally agree with. Beau and Bailey have been in poor form all season, and I’ve made no arguments about that, though I have said I believe the pair of forwards to be good enough to pull themselves out of the funk.

Mayfield’s place on that list I disagreed with. Mainly, because I don’t think Mayfield has been disappointing, he’s just been, Scott Mayfield. That’s not meant to be a swipe at the Islanders defenseman either, it’s just an observation.

Mayfield is, in my opinion, a decent but limited defenseman with a very one-dimensional skillset. He’s pretty good at guarding his blue line, and in his own zone and he’s big and strong enough to muscle opposing players around often. His positional play cost him on Thursday, as it was Mayfield whose blown coverage led to Oskar Lindblom’s late game-winning goal.

I’ve been banging the drum about how poor the Islanders defenseman’s transitional abilities are all season. Asking Mayfield to exit the Islanders zone with control of the puck is just tempting fate. It often results in an icing when he tries to pass his way out of the zone, or a turnover when he carries.

He’s never been a play-driver, as his career average 48.1% Corsi For Percentage indicates, and his 50.5% xGF% since 2018-19 has only dropped to 49% in 2020-21 when adjusted for score and venue, according to Natural Stat Trick.

So I’ve gotta ask, has Mayfield’s season really been disappointing, or are his shortcomings just more glaring now than they’ve been previously? It isn’t as though he’s seen a huge drop in the quality of his D partner. Nick Leddy has been every bit the Devon Toews replacement that I didn’t believe he could be entering the season. Leddy is having a revelatory bounce-back season, maybe his best since 2014-15, his first year on Long Island.

Scott Mayfield is a lot of things. Frustrating, prone to lapses in better on-ice judgment, etc., but I wouldn’t say disappointing is the right term here.

Nick Leddy #2 of the New York Islanders. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Nick Leddy #2 of the New York Islanders. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images) /

3. Nick Leddy’s Resurgence As a Top-Four Defenseman

I said in the last slide that I had little faith in the kind of return to form it would’ve taken for Nick Leddy to bounce back and fill the void left by Devon Toews on the Islanders top-four D pair. However, he’s done exactly that, once again proving that my takes are quite literally never the correct ones.

In truth, I can’t even really diagnose what it is that has precipitated this sudden resurgence in Leddy’s once declining career. Was Johnny Boychuk cooked enough to have really been that much of an anchor on Leddy’s on-ice performance in the last few years? I don’t think that’s entirely it, but it certainly could’ve been a factor.

In 2014-15, Leddy was undoubtedly this team’s number one defenseman, playing tough minutes against top competition for a contending Islanders team. But since then it had been a steep drop in production and subsequent value.

2019-20 looked like Leddy may return to form early in the season. He posted 17 points in his first 35 games, and though his possession metrics weren’t great, they weren’t relatively abysmal compared to his 19-20 Islanders defense colleagues. Then the second-half of 2019-20 came and his numbers took another steep decline.

With all that said, Leddy is this team’s third-best defenseman right now. What never left him was puck-transporting abilities, those are still there in spades. But he’s doing more with those excellent up-ice rushing abilities now than he had in previous seasons.

Leddy has 20 assists in 2020-21 after Thursday, good for a third-place tie in assists among NHL defensemen as I write this, and that’s with a team shooting percentage of 9.68% while Leddy is on the ice.

He also has a 52.82% xGF%, good for third among Islanders defensemen when adjusted for score and venue, also according to Natural Stat Trick. Leddy is genuinely playing much better hockey than at any point in the last four seasons at least, and I’d say this season he’s been better than the 2015-16 version of himself.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

– Speaking of defense, the Islanders could use a bit of depth there, and the last couple games have been evidence enough for it.

Noah Dobson’s absence due to his placement on the NHL’s COVID protocol list has necessitated the use of Sebastian Aho to step into a role on the back-end. After not seeing NHL action for three years and having his season in AHL Bridgeport cut short last season, Aho has been understandably rusty. The problem is the Islanders really can’t afford that right now.

The Aho and Andy Greene pairing was a disaster on Thursday. That pair were caved in for most of the night, and the Islanders were outdone in shot attempts 20-9 when Aho was on the ice at 5v5.

I’m not putting that all on Aho either. Greene has been noticeably poor to me and other fans this season, and the Islanders bottom pair has struggled because of it.

For a team who relies upon building their game from a staunch, unwavering defensive guard, the Islanders simply can’t have this. They’ll need to allocate some of Anders Lee’s $7 million LTIR relief to acquiring a cheap, reliable seventh defenseman.

– Of all the many Islanders who deserve blame for the team’s poor form in the first 45 minutes of Thursday’s game, Semyon Varlamov is not among them. Varly’s game was very strong against the Flyers, and outside of a few bad starts this season, it has been consistently good in 2020-21.

Despite that, there are still a segment of fans who have questioned Varlamov throughout his time here. That same group of fans often clamor on about how much better things might be had the Islanders kept Robin Lehner after 2018-19. I liked Lehner as an Islander much as anyone, but my goodness, that is a tired scenario at this point.

Varlamov has been fine, in fact, he’s been better than fine. He’s been really good in 2020-21. So much so that writers actually acknowledged it via their mid-season awards voting, that’s something even the phenomenal seasons of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock couldn’t do. While I’m not sure Varly has been good enough for a Vezina nomination, he’s more than good enough to win with. Please stop with this narrative.