Let's not pretend that the New York Islanders were expected to be Stanley Cup contenders this season; they weren't. The expectation was that they'd be amongst several teams vying for either 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division or one of the two Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference.
From that perspective, even after going 2-6-1 in their last nine games, they are right around where most of us thought they'd be after 44 games. The problem is, it didn't have to be this way. The same issues and weaknesses that have troubled them since the start of the season are still plaguing them and costing them points, and that's an indictment of head coach Lane Lambert.
The Islanders are faltering in areas of their game that aren't solely a matter of personnel. If there has been one common critique of the team, it's that they were too content and chose to run it back with much of the same roster from the end of last season.
This group has shown the ability to play a more defensively structured and consistent game when the players are bought in and accountable. Detractors would call it boring, but it's hard to argue that it's what brought the Islanders the most success in recent seasons.
After Mathew Barzal suffered an injury in mid-February last season, the team refocused on playing the more defensively structured and responsible style that had served them so well during the first three seasons under Barry Trotz. The end result was finishing the final two months of the season strong without Barzal and clinching a playoff spot in their final regular-season game.
A team that was awful defensively under Doug Weight was taught how to limit scoring chances and became one of the best in the league at doing so. Yet. there's almost no resemblance between those teams and the teams under Lambert, despite having what is widely regarded as a strong group of defensemen and one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL.
From the time he was hired, the thought has been that with Lambert behind the bench, things would open up for the Islanders offensively, allowing their skill players to act more instinctively. That's happened this season for a portion of the roster, but the team is still ranked only 23rd in goals per game (2.95); that's actually one spot worse than they finished last season. Plus, any increased scoring has been canceled out by a leaky defense that is surrendering the second-most shots per game and a penalty kill that has been amongst the worst in the league all season.
It's been a season and a half, and at no point during that time could you simply and succinctly state what the Islanders' identity is under Lambert? Their identity changes from week to week, month to month, and sometimes game to game. However, the most consistent feature of their game has been allowing far too many high-danger chances, taking too many penalties, and making poor decisions when managing the puck.
To a great extent, that's coaching and the staff's ability to put their players in the best position to win games. Under Lambert, it continually feels like the Islanders are trying to be something that they are not equipped to be, leading to an identity crisis and a continuous mix of results and endless ups and downs from game to game or period to period.
If nothing changes, nothing changes. Lambert's inability to change course and correct problems during the season is why the Islanders are currently out of a playoff spot and could be too much for any number of outstanding individual performances to overcome.