New York Islanders: First Half Report Cards

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Tavares and crowd

Many college students are heading back to school for their spring semester. At the end of that semester, they’ll be judged by how well they perform on certain tests and projects. Similarly, in the world of hockey, many teams are being judged for their first of two halves if you will.

The New York Islanders are approaching their 43rd regular season game tomorrow night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Before the Islanders get ready for the game, it’s time to dish out some grades. We all know the somber feeling after an Islanders loss. The start to 2016 may not have been ideal, but let’s look at the first half, holistically.

The blue and orange currently sit in 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division with 49 points in 42 games (22-15-5). Is it time for a fire sale in Brooklyn? Not particularly. Below, we grade each individual aspect of the Islanders’ game to this point, and explain why there’s no need to panic, yet.

Goaltending

The Islanders have been fortuitous to say the least with goalies over the years. Even after the Rick DiPietro experiment, the Islanders have found a way to put a serviceable netminder behind them to disguise how bad they were during the rebuilding years. Fast forward to the calendar year 2016; an argument can be made that the Islanders have one of the best one-two punches in the NHL.

Halak

Jaroslav Halak continues to dazzle as the Slovak goalie has posted impressive numbers in the first half of the season. His record of 10-8-3 isn’t as impressive as his 2.22 GAA (13th) and .920 SV% (17th). Some may argue Halak hasn’t even hit his stride yet. After coming back from an injury, it’s only a matter of time until Halak improves on those numbers. Halak isn’t the only impressive goalie between the pipes this year for the Islanders, though.

Thomas Greiss opened up the season on a tear. Right before the new calendar year, Greiss was up in the top-five best goalies for his goals against average and save percentage, league-wide. Due to facing two tough teams with spectacular offenses in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars, the Islanders’ backup’s numbers have dropped a bit. Still, no shame in Greiss’ 12-6-2 record this season, while also posting a 2.33 GAA (16th) and .928SV% (8th).

The only other team that has at least two goalies in the top-20 in both goalie-friendly categories is the St. Louis Blues. It’s fair to say goaltending was the highlight of the Islanders’ first half of the season.

Grade: A-

Defense

The majority of the 2015-2016 Islanders’ defense played on the 2014-2015 Islanders that finished with 101 points. The only addition was right-handed shooting defenseman, Marek Zidlicky who was going to fill Lubomir Visnovsky’s spot and bring experience and leadership to the lineup.

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The first half of the 2015-2016 season was a rocky one for the defense, but they held down the fort. Advanced statistics indicate that the defense corps has dropped off a bit from last year. At the end of last season, the Islanders were tied for 6th best in the NHL for shots against per game, allowing 28.3 shots against. This season, that number has increased. The Islanders allow 30.6 shots against per game, which puts them at 21st in the league in that department. What’s the causing this statistic?

Unfortunately, the Islanders are struggling to gain possession of the puck in the face off dots. The Islanders win 49.8 percent of their draws, which puts them at 18th best in the league. If the Islanders can’t dictate play starting with the offense, it’ll be incredibly difficult moving forward for a thin defense corps with Johnny Boychuk sidelined for another month.

Ultimately, the defense has been strong and reliable. There are a couple holes that need to be filled, but the defense is not holding this team back, no matter how much people complain about Zidlicky or Brian Strait.

Grade: B+

Offense

Islanders’ General Manager Garth Snow has done everything imaginable to add depth forwards to help supplement goals. During the early years of John Tavares’ career, if he didn’t score, the team didn’t score. That shouldn’t be the storyline anymore as Snow added Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski during 2014 free agency. The two European forwards were supposed to elevate the Islanders’ play to the next level. To this point, they’re both better as two-way forwards than scoring forwards.

Tavares and Nielsen

That leaves nine remaining forwards (besides Tavares) that dress in any given game to help supplement some goals for the team. By now, everyone knows the role of the fourth-line and what they bring to the table, so that brings it down to six forwards who are supposed to be regular 15+ goal scorers in a season.

The three players that formerly assembled “The Kid Line,” have fallen from grace. Brock Nelson has been the only consistent player of the three younger Islanders. Ryan Strome and Anders Lee have really struggled to find their game this season. Strome struggled in all three zones early on this season and even found himself demoted to the AHL for a portion of time.

The only other three Islanders that regularly dress are Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and Frans Nielsen. All three of these players were Islanders’ draft picks. They fit the mold of the team, but can they help alleviate some stress from Tavares? Nielsen is having an uncharacteristically good offensive season as he’s on pace for just under 30 goals. Okposo has been more of an assist machine this season than scoring. Bailey is a reliable forward that Jack Capuano can call on in different situations, but he isn’t the offensive weapon that they likely hoped he’d become back in 2008 when they drafted him.

Grade: C

Special Teams

When looking over the offense and defense, a lot of fans want to know how they handle special teams situations. Let’s first look at what the Islanders do when they’re on the man-advantage.

Doug Weight, the coach responsible for the Islanders’ power play, has been the talk of the teams’ critics since the team went 0-for-14 on the power play in the postseason. Since that time, not a whole lot has changed. The Islanders currently have the 22nd best power play in the league, and it’s continually spiraling downhill.

It appears, no matter the personnel on the power play, the Islanders struggle to gain the offensive line cleanly. Even when they do so, it’s normally short lived when the Islanders are in the zone. At this point, the Islanders should focus on this aspect of the game during their second half of the season. It is crucial to be opportunistic and score when on the man-advantage.

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Fortunately for the Islanders, they have the best penalty killing numbers in the Eastern Conference and second best in the entire league. On the last day of 2015, the Islanders had a streak of straight kills that stretched almost a quarter of their season. While it was inevitable that the Islanders would give up a power play at some point, no matter how injury-plagued the team has become, they manage to kill off penalties.

Grade: B

Coaching             

The grade everyone has been waiting for. In the last grade, we analyzed what the two assistant coaches are most responsible for. In this area, we’ll get straight to the Islanders’ bench boss, Jack Capuano.

There are two types of fans; the optimistic fan and the pessimistic fan. Neither one can objectively tell you why Capuano is behind the bench.

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Here are the facts:

  1. There’s a reason Capuano has been behind the Islanders bench for as long as he has. There’s no reason to keep around a guy for more than 400 NHL games if he can’t coach in the NHL.
  2. He has coached a few of the current players in the AHL.
  3. Back in 2013, Capuano brought the Islanders to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Here are a list of some players who played in playoff games for the Islanders. On defense for that team; Mark Streit, Travis Hamonic, Brian Strait, Matt Carkner, Lubomir Visnovsky, Andrew MacDonald. On offense for that team; David Ullstrom, Keith Aucoin, Marty Reasoner.
  4. The team went on an 8-0-2 stretch a month ago.

A lot of that is forgotten when the team struggles. Through the ebb and flow of a grueling 82-game season, there are winning and losing streaks. The Islanders played their last game without their top-two defensemen. Not a lot of coaches are able to win without their best players. Now, this isn’t to say that Capuano is perfect and untouchable. There are certainly things that need to be corrected such as, being able to correctly assemble lines. For whatever reason, Capuano, more so than other coaches, refuses to make a lot of in-game adjustments. It appears he trusts his gut a little too much. Nonetheless, the Islanders are where they are because their coach has put them in the right positions more often than not.

Grade: B-

Want to share your thoughts and opinions on the team? Disagree with my assessments or grades? Tweet me-@Miczahn

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