Things were stacked against the New York Islanders before a puck was even dropped this season. The new UBS Arena, which would end this weird New York area odyssey they’ve been on since that ill-fated decision to play at Barclays Arena, which didn’t ever plan for hockey, wasn’t ready until this past weekend. Which meant the Isles had to open the season with a 13-game road trip, though it had some breaks to allow for some practices and stays at home at least. It may seem like that’ll correct itself with a home-heavy schedule, and the Islanders will play 10 home games in December and then play 10 of 11 at home in January before the Olympic break. But with the NHL’s everyone-gets-a-trophy-or-a-point standings system, especially accentuated as the season goes on with three-point games, it’s a lot harder to catch up than it is to hold off chasers. Starting on the road for so long has definitely made life uncomfortable for the Isles, in that they’re staring awfully up at an awful lot of teams already. They have 12 points, good for last in the Metro and tied with second-worst in the East with the Habs, though the Isles have played five less games. Still, “tied with the Habs” is not a description anyone wants to carry around. It’s basically a scarlet dunce cap.
Clearly the extended life on the road made them cranky. In their second to last game of the opening gauntlet, they took eight penalties against the Lightning, apparently thinking that if they fought the Bolts enough and acted like just enough of an asshole, the NHL would reverse last year’s semifinal outcome and award the Isles the Final berth. The next night against Florida, they again couldn’t help conga-lining to the box, with more fights and misconducts and a nasty kneeing penalty by Scott Mayfield on Sasha Barkov, and once again they got fustigated 6-1. Meaning they left Florida to finally head back to the Island with a 10-2 aggregate ass-waxing.
It didn’t get much better at home, as the Isles lost the curtain-raiser to their new home 5-2 to the Flames and then 3-0 last night to the Leafs. Opening the home schedule against those two teams would have been tricky under normal circumstances, given that they’ve been two of the league’s best (I know, I don’t believe it with Calgary either but it’s true) and the Leafs have been the league’s hottest team.
But the Isles were waylaid by a COVID list for the two home games. Adam Pelech, Andy Greene, Anthony Beavillier, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, and Ross Johnston all missed the games thanks to protocols. That’s half of the Isles’ top six forwards, as well as a third of the defense. That was only two players less than the Senators had test positive, which got their three games the past week postponed. One might ask why the Islanders didn’t get a similar postponement, but postponing a home and arena-opener is probably the slightly trickier task.
However unlucky the Islanders can consider themselves, the fact remains that Thanksgiving is in three days and they’re seven points out of a playoff spot. And, as has become NHL lore now, 77 percent of the teams that are in the playoff spots when the turkey comes out of the oven (or the deep fryer if you’re adventurous like me) stay there when the season ends. Then again, most of the chasing pack doesn’t get to play 21 home games in two months, but the chore for the Islanders is still pretty taxing.
What’s been the issue for them? Harder to pin down, though the big one is that they were never primed to be a big scoring team, and they most certainly haven’t been this year. The only team that averages less goals per game than the Isles are the Coyotes, and the Yotes aren’t designed to try and score, or win, or really exist in any meaningful way. That’s a bad place to be.
The Isles power play has been woeful, clicking at just 12.2 percent and providing just five goals all season. And the Isles don’t get a lot of cracks at it, with the second-fewest opportunities in the league.
Which isn’t wholly surprising for a Barry Trotz team, as a Trotz team rarely if ever pressures teams offensively. In the last somewhat normal season of 2019-2020, the Islanders had the least amount of power play opportunities. But they clicked on 17 percent of them.
But even before the plague stripped the roster, the Isles weren’t getting enough from people they expected to score. Kyle Palmieri has one goal. Mathew Barzal, never a prolific scorer, only has eight points. Beauvillier only had three goals before being whisked away to his room. Only Nelson and Oliver Wahlstrom, who seemingly played on the US World Juniors team 17 times, have five goals or more, and Wahlstrom has one goal in November. Compare that with the Leafs who have five guys with five goals or more and six with 10 or more points. The Islanders only have Nelson with 10+ points.
Perhaps the more worrying aspect is that the usual Trotz calling card, the defense, hasn’t been all that good either. The Islanders are giving up a ton of attempts at even-strength, over 60 per 60 minutes, third-worst in the league. A heavy haul of attempts against isn’t that unusual for a Trotz team. But they usually limit those to mostly being prayers from the blue line and the outer rims. Not so much the case this year, as the Isles are 18th in expected goals against per 60. So that’s a lot of shots being fired at them, and too many are good ones. Ilya Sorokin has been good (.925 save-percentage), but he’s overworked both in-game and overall as Semyon Varlamov has been woeful in limited outings (.894 save-percentage). Trotz has almost always preferred to evenly split his goalies’ starts, especially in his time with the Islanders, and he hasn’t been able to.
It’s rarely a good sign when you have to lean on 44-year-old Zdeno Chara, who has the second most minutes on the team and has been getting his aged ass paddled all over the ice.
All is not lost for the blue and orange. That home-heavy schedule is an advantage no one else will have, and they’ve played the least amount of games in the league so far. Trotz’s defensive game should kick in at some point. Barzal and co. are always capable of a nuclear streak. But they’ll need all of it. They already have to climb over five teams, and even with 67 games left, that’s hard to do.
Also maybe they should stop trying to fight the world.