Despite the season long laundry list of injuries, the inconsistent powerplay, the “enigma” that is Islanders captain John Tavares, a trade request, and everyone’s favorite whipping boy Brian Strait, the New York Islanders are in second place in the Metro Division and are tied for third in the Eastern Conference with a pace for 98 points. Now a few posts ago I thought the Islanders would eventually surpass the New York Rangers in the standings and be able to catch up with the first place Washington Capitals. So far so good at surpassing the Rangers but Washington’s goalie Brandon Holtby took it upon himself to go on a 20-0-2 point streak and nixed my second idea. The Capitals are on pace for 129 points, so let’s just move on from Washington for now and see if they ever decide to come back down from that high pedestal. As far as third in the Eastern Conference, I’ve seen Montreal, Boston, Detroit and now the Florida Panthers claim the number one slot in the Atlantic Division, but it took a recent 12 game winning streak for the Panthers to get there. So as the Conference standings have been as volatile as this years stock market, the New York Islanders are still in the thick of things and, at worst, have only spent a day or two in seventh in the Conference.
There’s been a lot of discussion about why the Islanders are not doing as well as they should be from last year. To be honest, so is every other fan except for Boston, Detroit and Washington as these teams were close to or made the playoffs last year and are still in it now. Even their point totals from last year are not far off and Boston can blame Ottawa and their late season surge in the standings to knock them off. Indeed, you can include the Islanders in this list as they finished last season with 101 points, but many will soon realize that a 98 point season may actually get you 3rd in the Conference this year and not 8th. The bottom teams in the East improved while some past top teams like the Rangers, Penguins and Canadiens have taken a bit of a tumble, while Tampa Bay may just have had a longer hangover than expected.
Everyone wants to figure out what’s wrong with the Islanders. They want Tavares atop of the leader board and get him to win the Hart trophy this and every year. Many are afraid that the Isles won’t get past the first round. Then to add more drama to the mix, the New York Post comes out with an article over last weekend that basically said trade Strome, Lee and maybe even Brock Nelson for Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe, and Brian Noonan and get Tavares his top winger and make a New York Rangers style run at the Stanley Cup. First of all to all my younger Islanders fans out there, before there was a popular hockey rumor website where trades are always imminent, there was/is the New York Post. It’s the last paper you want to read but do it for entertainment purposes only. Now the Post did come up with a decent thought about the Islanders getting a “Top winger” for a “sluggish” John Tavares. Many fans and other media outlets have preached this for years. To a degree I understand where they’re coming from, but this is not a team in free fall. This is not the 90’s anymore where if you just beat Ziggy Palffy, the game is over. God forbid Tavares is only on pace for 60 points. Shudder the thought. It’s not there isn’t another 35 games left in the season. Where’s the help? It may already be here.
In my humble opinion other than undisclosed injury, John Tavares is at a point of growth in his professional career. The Islanders did not make any changes to their roster over the off-season and it makes watching videos and studying of the team easier. That’s why many are praying for a trade for another potential stud player for Tavares’ wing so that some of the pressure comes off of him. To me, John Tavares isn’t necessarily struggling, it’s just that the rest of the League has caught up to him. Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff praised Tavares and said that one of the keys, if not the main key to winning a game against the Islanders was stopping Tavares. That’s been other teams mentality as well, you only have to stop Tavares. For the most part, many teams have done that this year as fans have witnessed Tavares take a beating game in and game out. We’ve seen bottom teams like Florida, New Jersey, Buffalo and Philadelphia all improve which makes the Conference stronger and tougher to play in. Yet through all of his struggles, and all the improvements in the East, the Islanders are still not far off from where they were a year ago and higher in the standings. Why?
New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault called the Islanders the best four lines in hockey before their recent matchup. It doesn’t matter who is on what line, the Islanders are finding ways to win hockey games despite the line shuffling and finding the correct wingers for Tavares. You look at the offensive side besides Tavares and Kyle Okposo still leads the team in points, a healthy Frans Nielsen is having another career year, Cal Clutterbuck and the best fourth line (according to many) is on pace for 17 goals. You look at the young defensive depth in Scott Mayfield and the surprise of the year in Adam Pelech and how they’ve stepped in for the injured Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk. The elevated games of Nick Leddy, Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey since the injuries started. Thomas Greiss is arguably the first half MVP in place of regular goalie Jaroslav Halak. It’s The real catalysts that have made the biggest impact though, the “tradable” Lee, Strome and Nelson. To make this quick, when Ryan Strome scores a point the Isles are 10-3-2; Anders Lee: 12-2-2; Brock Nelson: 16-5-1; When all three score in the same game this year: 7-0-0. Is it time to reunite the kid line from last year? No. It’s time for them to play separately and make others better the way Tavares has done for others? Yes. I believe Strome will be the one to get Tavares going and watching the two of them for the rest of the season will be fun to say the least.
It’s my humble opinion that throughout the course of this hockey season the Islanders are battling through adversity. They’re learning how to win without their best player(s) playing their best or not consistent enough or not playing at all. We’re witnessing not only a challenge that is being accomplished, but growth from every aspect of this organization. I’ve said this before that Strome and Lee are still going through some NHL growing pains but we’re already seeing the emergence of Brock Nelson get through his and what many were waiting for. It may only be a matter of a short time before both Lee and Strome grow even more before our eyes and it may be just in time for the playoffs. Tavares too is also going through a lesson now. He’s battling a better prepared League but will it be able to contain his team? Doesn’t look like it now. Will he get through this? Yes, especially with a healthy Halak, Boychuk and Hamonic coming back and hopefully for the rest of the year. There will be less pressure on him with a slew of up and coming players whose time appears to be now and not just one stud winger to tip the balance of a game. Adversity is always present in the playoffs and as long as our young captain and his team learns and grows from this, so will the Islanders and they’ll be ready for the playoffs even more for it.