Every franchise goes through a transitional period. Some start as a rebuilding team and after a few years, they begin to improve and reach another stage in the organizations development, such as just making it to the playoffs on a regular basis. Then another period occurs when the team makes the playoffs more often or wins the division or finally gets to another round. There’s another transitional period when as a fan, you know your team is going after the Stanley Cup. Expectations are high, there’s a ton of optimism to begin the season and you’re ready to challenge any team that comes into your home arena. Then there’s what I like to call a “twilight” transitional period where you’ve won a cup, maybe two or three and you know your team is good, but it’s got some older players and despite a winning record and making the playoffs, the Cup just feels out of reach because you know of teams that are younger and faster and in your gut, you know they’ll beat your team and then you begin to think: “Maybe some change will be good.” “Maybe just a retool can get this team back to the Cup.” Or you could just be like: “Fire everyone and start the rebuild!!!” Thus the process of transition begins again.
Enter July 1st, 2016. It’s the official first day of free agency and it was a sad day for many Islanders fans. With the salary cap era in place for years, it was not going to be financially possible for the Islanders to bring back all three players, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin. A transition was occurring. Home grown players now all grown up and moving on to bigger yet, maybe not so much better things. By the time July 4th was upon us, the Islanders ended up signing Andrew Ladd, Jason Chimera and P.A Parenteau. On paper, the numbers seemed to suggest that the Islanders either stood pat or slightly improved in the goal production department. However, it was not their role to take the torches from the three departed and beloved players to carry on the Islanders winning ways, making the playoffs and beyond. That responsibility went to the Islanders youngsters Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and Ryan Strome. As the season began, Parenteau was put on waivers in favor of a rookie who would eventually be one of the bright spots of this year, Anthony Beauvillier. But that is where the feel good story ends.
For the record, I did have the Islanders in the playoffs as one of my Core 6 and honestly believed that 97-102 points were attainable. It may have taken more time to get there because of the new players, rookies and the like getting used to the system, but there was always enough depth to sustain such a record. That’s where it all fell apart. The Islanders finished with 94 points and missed the playoffs by one point. Forget about what the Islanders could have done differently because we’re only talking one point. We can go back as recent as the Boston loss or go back to the games after the break where the Isles lost to Colorado, or Carolina or whatever game you can come up with. What happened to the Islanders that made them miss out on another 100 point season and not make a run for that first wild card spot that the Rangers held at 102 points?
Let’s start with the stuff the Islanders had absolutely no control over. First, the Metro Division turned out to be the strongest division in the entire NHL. There was no way that anyone foresaw all five teams: the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Philadelphia Flyers dominate through the first 30 games of this season. The Philadelphia Flyers were on pace for 101 points and in 5th place in the Metro. In fact if I’m correct, the Flyers are the first team in NHL history to go on a ten game winning streak and not make the playoffs, so if not for that epic collapse, no one left in the Metro: the Isles, Hurricanes or Devils were even sniffing the playoffs this year. If the Flyers held on to that pace, you can get rid of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs as well and the 6-game winning streak the Islanders had at the end of the season because it would have been a non-factor. The Islanders needed to come out of the gate with guns blazing, and they were nothing but a dud.
The second part the Islanders had no control over was the schedule. It’s a decent Segway because it was more of a double whammy. The Islanders were absolutely wretched against the teams that were in the top ten at that time: 1-7-1 after the first 20 games and 5-11-1 after 30. The Islanders through the first 20 games the were on pace to the finish the season with 66 points and 74 after 30. The issue was that over half of the Islanders schedule were against teams in the top ten. A big reason for this failure was their inability to hold a lead with minutes to go in a game. The Islanders allowed a lead in regulation with three minutes to go in regulation four times in the first thirty games against teams in the top ten. They would end up doing that a total of five times in the first thirty. That’s a possible 10 points squandered. That ladies and gentleman was your season.
We can blame the coach, the players, the GM, the owners, John Spano, Mike Milbury, Kate Murray, whoever you want for the first 30 games. The point was a change was needed and so another transition occurred. Islanders head coach Jack Capuano was fired and Doug Weight assumed the role of interim head coach. He brought in a different voice and philosophy and tweaked the system and it paid off handsomely. During the second half of the season under Weight, the Islanders went 24-12-4 and the Islanders were on pace for 107 points over a full season. As Weight’s tenure began we also saw another transition in the starting goaltender.
There’s two more uncontrollable factors that could account to the Islanders not racking up 100 points or beating the Rangers. The first one was not a single goalie was traded during the regular season until the trade deadline. To be honest, after Thomas Greiss claimed the number one goalie spot after Halak’s injury and helped the Islanders advance to the second round last year and Jaro’s masterful performance in the World Cup in September, I thought Jaro was a goner. His trade value was never higher and with the resigning of J.F Berube in the offseason, it was only a matter of time. But Jaro and the Islanders could not get anything started and thus drama occurred within the locker room because of the lack of goalies being moved and the three-goalie system doesn’t work every year. I have to believe that if there was a market, he was traded.
So why didn’t Berube get placed on waivers and sent down to Bridgeport? Enter uncontrollable factor number 2. It’s more of a logical conspiracy theory, even though it probably won’t be accepted. Christopher Gibson, who was supposed to be the regular starter for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers only played in seven games before sustaining a season ending injury. There were rumors that at least the Kings and Hurricanes had interest in claiming Berube if he were placed on waivers and that would’ve left the Islanders with rookie goalie Eamon McAdam and the struggling Stephon Williams, both of whom were not ready at the time to even be the starter of the Sound Tigers, no less back up Greiss or Halak had an injury occurred to either one. In any case you would have seen the same thing happen this year in working a goalie to death (Greiss) for the sake of making the playoffs. So a transition was once again made. Jaro, due to his contract not being desirable, was sent to Bridgeport and Thomas Greiss signed a three year contract extension to become the two-time, number one starter for the New York Islanders.
Now I brought up the transition of former home-grown players to new home-grown players that were responsible for keeping the winning and the playoffs alive. Indeed, it’s not easy with the task of replacing Kyle Okposo, Matt Martin and Frans Nielsen but it was time for Nelson, Lee and Strome to do just that, even if it was in their own way. To be honest, only Anders Lee exceeded everyone’s expectations as he was probably the Islanders best forward all year. Brock Nelson was Brock Nelson, he showed up at times and then disappeared. To his credit he did notch 20 goals and racked up career high in points with 45, but it’s not enough. More was needed and expected and it wasn’t delivered. Ryan Strome? 30 points. Really? He racked up 13 goals and only played in 69 games. OK, how about ending the season with 42 points or even 45 like Brock? Here’s another stat for everyone, when Ryan Strome is not in the lineup, the Islanders are 15-7-1 all time. In all seriousness folks, if Nelson racks up 50+ points and Strome around the same numbers, the Islanders are in the playoffs. You knew what you were getting in Ladd and Chimera and for the most part, they delivered. You’re getting used to Nelson, but to be quite honest I’m not sure if Strome is going to turn into the next Josh Bailey or Rob Schremp. Granted, his numbers improved under Weight, but so did everyone else. Again, Ryan Strome is a non-factor to this team and he needs to become one because if he doesn’t, then we’re going to see another transition from Strome to Josh Ho-Sang. I’ll comment on Beauvillier and Ho-Sang in another piece.
Now obviously I have not mentioned the general manager of the Islanders, Garth Snow. Ultimately, the blame is on him and he’ll own it. Will there be a transition of the general manager? No, even before the Newsday article came out I had said no. Why not? For the sake of cutting this piece down, I will say this: The Islanders had one of the worst starts imaginable and were a 77-82 point pace team by the half way mark of the season. He made necessary changes and the Islanders finished the year with 94 points, one shy of the playoffs (thank you Philly). He now has a number one goalie in Thomas Greiss who the Islanders are a 95 point team with (around 103 before the burnout), and a hopefully soon to be full-time coach in Doug Weight who’s on pace for 107 points (UPDATE***Doug Weight is now the head coach of the Isles, take off the interim). Snow has gotten the Isles back to the 97-102 point pace from the previous two seasons. He has this summer to exceed that pace and he knows he does need to make some roster and staff moves to upgrade a spot or two, but the owners feel good about the direction the team is in. The Islanders can still transition up from consistent playoffs to say the division or the Conference Finals. Not making the playoffs suck, there’s no doubt of that, but the team direction is good and the Cup doesn’t look as far away as it did in 2008. Transitions do take time, but they do work.