This is the first installment of quarterly reports on the New York Islanders and their AHL affiliate Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Be sure to follow along all season as I offer a brief review, touching on some of the highlights and low points interlaced with analysis and lightly dusted with commentary.
New York Islanders
Following Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings – their 20th - the Islanders’ season has been an up and down, bumpy ride to say the least. Their first regulation loss didn’t come until their fourth game of the season. They followed their first two-game winning streak by dropping four straight games on the road, then easily handled their opponents in their first game back home. Yet despite what sometimes felt like rough times amid lengthy winless streaks, the Isles sported a 4-4-3 home record and rounded out the first quarter just three games below .500 - ahead of two division rivals, tied with another, and just five points back of Metropolitan-leading Pittsburgh in the standings.
The team battled through numerous frustrating one-goal losses, and played well in a 6-1 pounding of Phoenix and a 5-2 win over Columbus. They also showed an ability to rebound from adversity, falling behind 4-2 to Ottawa before roaring back in dramatic fashion to win it all 5-4 in the shootout. The flipside to these games were such outings as the 5-2 loss to cellar-dwelling Philadelphia and an embarrassing 6-2 thrashing at the hands of Washington. Through 19 games they had scored fewer than two goals in a game just once, and the team’s 56 goals was good a second-place tie in the Eastern Conference.
Part of the team’s difficulty in winning the close games may stem from the performance of their special teams. The power play has tailed off down the stretch but still ranks in the top half of the league at 13th overall, with a 19.1% efficiency. The larger issue seems to be on the penalty kill, where the Isles come in at a dismal 73.4%, dead last in the league. This is an area that will require serious improvement in order to make any sort of charge up the standings.
Possibly the hottest story of the opening quarter was the blockbuster deal that saw the Isles ship fan favorite Matt Moulson off to Buffalo along with a pair of draft picks for sniping winger Thomas Vanek. Moulson’s pair of goals in his Buffalo debut (the only two he’s scored thus far as a Sabre) placed Vanek squarely under a microscope as comparisons ran rampant. Vanek just started to get his game going as an Islander when an injury early in his sixth game with the team knocked him out of the lineup. As of this writing he was skating with the team, though not at full force just yet.
If the Vanek trade wasn’t the biggest news then almost certainly the goaltending situation was. Starter Evgeni Nabokov came out strong but faltered, while backup Kevin Poulin acquitted himself admirably but failed to make back to back appearances until this week, despite some strong performances. The LA game was his third consecutive start.
The defense corps, riddled with injuries, has struggled to find a rhythm most of the way so far. Lubomir Visnovsky went down with a concussion after just eight games and as of yet there is no timetable regarding his return to action. At various times Brian Strait, Matt Donovan, Matt Carkner and recently signed Radek Martinek have spent time on the sidelines whether due to injury or inconsistent play. Even the usually steady duo of Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald stumbled through difficult stretches. There have been very few games where all six blueliners have been healthy and at the top of their game.
The forwards have been clicking on all cylinders for much of the first quarter. Captain John Tavares put together a league-high ten game points streak. Two-way center Frans Nielsen took his offensive game to a whole new level and winger Kyle Okposo surprised almost everyone by notching 20 points, just four shy of last season’s total, in his first 19 games. Josh Bailey had a strong start to the season, averaging over a point a game until levelling off over the past dozen games. Michael Grabner also leapt out to a hot start until a two-game suspension derailed his momentum. In fact, of the league’s top ten scorers three were Islanders (Tavares and Nielsen were tied for second and tied for sixth respectively, and Okposo was tied with three others for tenth). The Isles were the first, and to date only, team to boast three players with 20+ points.
The prognosis: An up and down first quarter, but the Isles are still very much in the mix in the East. At this point there is definitely room for improvement, but despite the cries of the naysayers it’s far too early to throw in the towel on the 2013-14 season.
Bridgeport Sound Tigers
Note: Because the AHL season is slightly shorter than that of the NHL, this isn’t technically their quarter mark. Since the primary focus is the Islanders, however, the quarter reports will simply cover the Sound Tigers up to the point to which they have played.
Just like the parent club, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers have muddled through an up and down season to date. Their record stands at 4-6-1, last place in the Northeast Division, but their record only tells part of the story. They followed up a five-game losing streak with a four-game run during which they won three and dropped just one, in a shootout. Also like the Isles, Bridgeport finds themselves playing close to .500 hockey – just two games below, in fact - and well within striking distance of some of the teams just ahead of them in the standings.
There are numerous points of interest in Bridgeport but the big story so far has to be rookie center Ryan Strome. After a mediocre start Strome caught fire and piled up 16 points through 12 games, tied for tenth overall in the league and second in rookie scoring. His five-point game against Worcester tied a team record.
Defenseman Aaron Ness played well enough (and the Isles were decimated enough) that he was recalled from Bridgeport On November 9th to bolster the Islanders’ blue line. Ness has appeared in five games with the big club so far, recording his first career goal against the Kings and performing well enough overall to avoid a return to the farm.
Winger Mike Halmo, an undrafted 2012 free agent signee whose previous claim to fame was a suspension for a vicious hit on Nail Yakupov while playing for Owen Sound in the OHL, has been a pleasant surprise with 6 goals and 10 points in his first 12 games, including a 4-point outing against Worcester on Nov. 1. He’s within striking distance of last season’s 14-point total in just 10 games this year.
First-year forward Anders Lee, who impressed in a pair of games with the Isles last season, is gaining confidence, tallying 10 points in his first 12 games.
Third year defenseman Calvin de Haan, coming off a year in which he missed all but three games to injury, has had a difficult time out of the gate with just one assist through nine games. Injuries have hampered his development, and this season will likely be an important one in terms of his role with the club moving forward.
Steady veteran Jon Sim was signed to a 25-game tryout. His biggest contribution will be in assuming a leadership role and a stabilizing influence, both on the ice and in the dressing room. Sim has an assist through three games played, and the teams record is 2-1 since his arrival.
As with the big club, Bridgeport is suffering from goaltending woes. Though to be fair, with nearly four goals against per game, the fault cannot lie solely between the pipes. After twelve games the Tigers are tied for the second highest goals-against total in the Eastern Conference, and fifth highest in the league.
Outlook: This is a very young and inexperienced team, one which is going to make mistakes and struggle through some rough patches. The season so far would have to be considered borderline unsuccessful, but with cautiously optimistic signs of turning things around.