After the NHL regular season ended and I had made my first round playoff predictions, I’ve been wanting to do my season review of the New York Islanders, but I needed this past weekend to reflect. I do pride myself when it comes to preseason predictions and when something goes horribly wrong, like it did with the Isles, I want to know what went wrong. So I went back to the beginning and after looking through some key articles that John, Gary and myself had written, not only was I dead wrong as to where I should’ve put the Islanders, but I’m even more excited for next year.
I had placed the Isles as a bubble team in my preseason predictions. Basically, a 9th place finish with a top “Core” team needing to implode (Thank you Washington & Ottawa) and the Isles would have been buyers at the deadline, with what I thought would have been Kevin Poulin emerging as a future number one goalie for the Isles and Matt Donovan becoming a mainstay on defense. To further my point, my colleague John wrote on the importance of the goaltending if the Islanders were to be a factor this season. If you could only witness the face palm I planted on myself after reading that. Homer Simpson would’ve been proud. However, after looking back some more, it wouldn’t have made a difference with Donovan or Poulin not grabbing hold of the reigns as it did with the rest of the team and League.
Why The Vanek Trade Was Made
Folks, believe it or not when the statistics is done properly, it is possible to eliminate a team(s) from playoff contention after 30+ games. Please see Buffalo this year. But you can also eliminate bubble teams (7,8,9 or 10th place) very quickly from playoff contention if another team steps forward from the bottom and moves into a top 6 spot in the standings. That’s exactly what the Tampa Bay Lightning did. The Lightning went on to pull an Isles class of 2002 (Bates penalty shot year) start to a season and went a ridiculous 12-4-0 to start their season. The Islanders were flirting with .500 around the time Thomas Vanek was traded to the Isles for Matt Moulson. So with no injuries yet and through no fault of their own, the Islanders suddenly dropped to 10th place and possibly out of a playoff race before this season even got traction. This is why I believe a trade was made earlier on and why there was a stipulation in the trade with Buffalo, who were already out of the playoffs, that allowed the Islanders to decide whether or not they would keep this years pick if the Isles landed in the top 10 in this years draft. That was my first warning flag for this season.
What happened to the Islanders from there was just utter shock and an imbalance in team chemistry after Moulson was gone. What also came was something Islanders General Manager Garth Snow and the Isles faithful never saw coming: the injuries and another long unbearable season. As November began, the Islanders already had Cal Clutterbuck injured through October and making a slow return. The team ended up losing veteran Lubomir Visnovsky and Brain Strait to injuries in the first week. Most thought that Visnovsky injury was more severe than Straits presence on the team, but then I wrote an article about how inexperienced the Islanders defense really was. When you play that many rookies and inexperienced NHL players, especially on the blue line, you’re not going to win a lot of games on any team, not just Long Island. Then with the injury sustained to Islanders starting goalie Evgeny Nabokov, inexperienced backup Kevin Poulin was given the starters job with a depleted team to begin with.
To make matters worse the offense from the forwards, which I had predicted would score 215-225 goals, ended up scoring 193 because of a few players not fitting in as well as most thought (Bouchard, Regin) and players who’s goal production suffered (Bailey & Grabner). The inexperience was also present on the offense as well. Colin McDonald had never played a total 80 games in the NHL yet and neither had Casey Cizikas. Brock Nelson, Bridgeport’s top forward last season, took over for the injured Clutterbuck in October and remained on the team for the entire season and played various roles, was also in his rookie season.
With all this youth and inexperience, the Islanders started their path downward, which included a wretched Islanders special teams, which Gary ended up being spot on in my opinion. To further the point of how an inexperienced team like the Islanders can have a enigmatic special teams, I wrote about 30 games into the season how bad the penalty killing really was. The only way this organization was going to improve was if the young players just played more games. The Isles ended up going 10 games under .500 and I had officially written them off in January, but they were out of the playoffs long before that. More injuries to regular players and more call-ups were needed to keep the Islanders season going, the finish line looking further and further away. Yet despite it all, the Islanders ended up playing 2 games over .500 since early December through the Olympic break.
So as the team improved and the rookies gained the experience, so did the Islanders record. With the Olympics taking up most of February there wasn’t much Islanders material to write about, until the final nail into the Islanders coffin was put in. They had lost captain John Tavares in the Olympics for the rest of the regular NHL season. For most fans, if they did not throw in the towel before, they did then. The Islanders youngsters however didn’t take this with despair, but saw this as an opportunity. Finishing the season with a 12-7-3 record, despite trading Thomas Vanek and Andre MacDonald at the trade deadline, the Islanders gave their fans something to at least think about next year. Hope.
Had I done my homework better, I would’ve put the Islanders in my sophomore section of the standings, but like so many of us, our hearts were doing the talking, they were saying the Islanders would just improve from last years playoff run and they weren’t even close. Our hearts were broken. It was like our significant other just stabbed us in the back. We would’ve been given an apology in the form of the coach Jack Capuano being fired. There may have been some comfort for some fans, but looking back, with all the rookies, there was a reason for him to stay. So fans continue to lick their wounds. Expectations weren’t met, but we as fans were blind to see the writings on the wall long before the season crashed.
In all, a total 12 rookies played for the Islanders this year. That’s not counting a few players who started the season with less than 80 games played in the NHL. That’s over half a team at certain points of the year. Are you really gonna win like that? No. Was this Islanders team bad? No. Bad is having a bunch of vets and bombing, like Buffalo bad at the beginning of the season (Just mention Ville Leino!). This Islanders team was inexperienced. Free agency was not kind to the fans as the Isles did not address the defifencies on defense or their goalie situation, but the Islanders needed to see what they had in their system. Everyone now knows what the Islanders have and, for the most part, are very happy.
The bright side to this season was that younger players developed and shined in the NHL. When I talk to fans and I mention: de Haan, Lee, Strome, Nelson and a few others, it puts a smile on their faces. Islanders fans have not seen this much young talent come up from the minor leagues and make a positive impact in DECADES!! That’s not including future defenseman’s Griffin Reinhart & Ryan Pulock. When the younger generation of fans ask if I remember the last time the Islanders had this much young talent, I say “Yes, and when we realized they were good, they were traded away. Be thankful!”
Did the Islanders take a step back this season? Yes (DUH!), but it may have been a necessary step back. The Islanders were able to evolve. They didn’t stay 10 games under, they didn’t get worse, they got better and they improved. This team next year will be a team of “IF’s.” If the Islanders make the necessary changes this offseason, as they should, it will speed up the evolution of the Islanders organization. IF the Islanders can stay healthy, they could do some damage in the standings. IF the rookies don’t get infested with a sophomore slump, the sky is the limit. Could I see them pulling a Tampa Bay of this year, or Ottawa two seasons (okay one and a half) ago? Maybe……
So for now Islanders fans, forgive but never forget; fool me once shame on you, fool me twice…; keep your hearts grounded beginning now and let this organization gain your trust starting with draft weekend in June, remember even though it’s the last season at the Coli, you pay the ticket prices (I pay ticket prices and tolls through three states), so if you’re not satisfied with your team earning your trust back, give them the silent treatment. I think that the Islanders organization is in a better spot now than what they were a year ago. The fact that the Isles can only get better from here on out, only makes me more happier and excited for next season.