Welcome to the second half of the NHL hockey season folks! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season, but there is a new season upon us. It’s called the NHL trade deadline. For me, the trade deadline season begins usually after the World Junior Championships and lasts up until the actual trade deadline date which is February 26th. This is also where you’ll start to begin to see teams fall our of the playoff race (if they haven’t already) and that’s when you see the free agents of those teams being thrown into the rumor mill. So before I get into the Isles, I wanted to show you the pro-rated standings of the Eastern Conference as of January 11, 2018 or roughly 43 games in for most teams.
1. Tampa 31-9-3 124 point pace
2. Caps 27-13-3 109
3. Bruins 23-10-7 109
4. Devils 22-11-8 104
5. Columbus 25-16-3 99
6. Leafs 25-17-3 97
7. Rangers 22-15-5 96
8. Carolina 19-15-8 90
9. Flyers 19-15-8 90
10. Isles 21-18-4 88
11. Pens 22-19-3 88
12. Florida 18-18-6 82
13. Detroit 17-17-7 82
14. Montreal 18-20-4 78
15. Ottawa 15-18-9 76
16. Sabres 10-24-9 55
Something interesting to note about the percentages: At the beginning of the season, the ratio for the percentages is 2:1. Which means for every win a team gets, the point pace moves up two points and every loss is one. However, now that that the teams are beyond the half way mark, you’ll start to see that ratio switches to a 1:2 ratio in which if a team losses a game the point pace moves down two points and a win gets you one. The ratio of 1:1 kicks in around the 65-70 game mark and that’s when I tell you to just watch the regular standings. Having said that let’s get some things out of the way.
1. It’s not official yet, but Ottawa and Montreal will soon be joining the Sabres as playoff eliminators. That is why you’ll see players from these teams begin to surface in the rumor mill (if they haven’t already).
2. To make matters worse in the Atlantic, I don’t see anyone from 12-16 catching up to the Leafs, so the Atlantic may have their three teams in the playoffs already.
3. At the beginning of the season, I had predicted that the last wild card spot would probably need close to 97 points due to the amount of good teams in the Conference. With the Habs and Senators nearly out and the Isles and Pens struggling, that number to get in decreases. For now, I’m going to say 93 points should get a team at least the second wild card spot.
4. As I look at the two wild card spots, I’m wondering if the Rangers have plateaued. They have not been able to reach the 100 point mark all season and their slow start may still be a reason why they may not make the playoffs. Also, when I see the that Henrik Lundquist is on pace to play 68 games this season, I can’t help but think the Rangers will either collapse before the season ends or they’ll make the playoffs and will have to face either the Lightning or (for now) the Caps in the first round, neither of which are a good case for an upset. Rangers have a lot of decisions to make before the trade deadline.
5. The second wild card currently belongs to the Carolina Hurricanes and I’m just not sold on their goalie tandem and offense to get them through the rest of the season. Even if both goalies return to form, the Hurricanes would have to make a trade or two to improve their offense enough to match the other teams they’re competing with. Is this a win-now year for Carolina?
6. That leaves us with Pittsburgh and the Flyers and to be honest, I’m sure there will be trades involving these two with other teams but there needs to be more games played before we can say which team is showing up
On to the Isles
So let’s answer this question and get it out of the way: Are the Islanders eliminated from the playoffs after a terrible December? No. I would dare say that without any team making moves/trades that the Isles will be in the playoff hunt for the entire season, even with the current injuries. The issue with most fans/bloggers/media have right now is that this shouldn’t be happening. The Isles, who I had ending their season between 100-105 points, are once again fighting for a wild card spot when they really should be going after home-ice advantage.
So what is it? How does a fourth ranked team in the NHL in goals-per-game not be in a playoff spot? How does a team with two All-Stars and four players in the top 40 in scoring not be in a wild card spot? How do the Isles, who finally have that dynamic second line center behind John Tavares and possible rookie of the year not be battling for a divsion title? Let’s dive in to this rabbit hole and enter the Isles “Wonderland.”
The Islanders have given up a total of 157 goals so far this season. What’s really frightening is that the league average of goals allowed is 126. That’s a -31 goal differential. Yikes!!! I can tell you where those missing goals came from. Officially the Isles have lost seven games by three goals or more. Some would argue that a few other games where the Isles scored one or two with a minute to go in the game should be in this category as well because they were never in it to begin with. What’s my point? At least nine or so games have been blow outs with the Isles never giving themselves a chance in these games. That’s about half the losses this year! Don’t forget the league-leading nine short handed goals allowed by the team when the average is around four.
The penalty kill unit is currently sitting 30th in the NHL at 74.1. Yes, the loss of Nikolai Kulemin for the rest of the season does hurt, but one guy should not be the cause of such a defeat. I’ll also go on record right now and say that I do not want my number one player, John Tavares, on any kind of penalty kill. I want him scoring points and willing my team to win and not looking out pf breathe at the end of an important game because your best player must also kill penalties all game long. The Isles must find a way to alleviate some of the burden form Tavares so that he can focus on his primary strengths. Another issue down this hole of blackness is that your best penalty killer has to be your goalie (Segway moment).
The Isles have finally established a number one goalie in Jaro Halak. I will say that this took too long and that’s on Jaro. He needed to be ready from day one and he’s only played in 25 games this year and quite frankly it should’ve been more had he been on his game from the start. His style of allowing too many rebounds to go into his own net is detrimental to this team and he needs to be better. Thomas Greiss is probably in his worst streak I’ve ever seen in his career. He’ll also need to put in a lot of work to get himself back to where he can play, but at this point, I would like to see Greiss used only in a back-to-back game situation (eight more) and ride Halak the rest of the way.
And now for the defense. I do view the advance stats, but I try to keep things simple. So when I look at the corsi % as long as the players are over 50% then I’m comfortable with their performance. Having said that, here is a list of the defenseman and their respective corsi-for % at even strength (stick tap to Hockey-reference.com)
1. Sebastian Aho 59.3
2. Ryan Pulock 50.5
3. Johnny Bouychuk 50.4
4. Adam Pelech 49.6
5. Nick Leddy 49.3
6. Calvin de Haan 49.1
7. Scott Mayfield 49.0
8. Thomas Hickey 48.2
9. Dennis Seidenberg 42.6
In all fairness other than Siedenburg, this doesn’t look horrendous. Yes, Sabastian Aho has only played in three games, but at this point I would ride the wave and see how he produces should he return from Bridgeport. Ryan Pulock has played in 29 out of the first 43 games this year and at this point may have to be in the lineup on a regular basis. But let’s dissect this further: if the defense is okay at 5 on 5, what about the forwards. For the sake of keeping this simple, the top 6 forwards are all above the 50% mark, so we’ll take a look at the bottom 6 forwards.
Anthony Beauvillier 47.5
Josh Ho-Sang 47.0
Brock Nelson 45.8
Casey Cizikas 46.3
Cal Clutterbuck 43.9
Jason Chimera 44.7
Now if we take into consideration that the Casey Cizikas line deals with other teams top lines, you can cut them a bit of a break. So what separates these two lines? Simple, if you look at their goals pace for the season, the Nelson line is on pace for 34 goals. The Cizikas line is on pace for 28. That’s just too close of a range. Does Jason Chimera have a second half renaissance and regain some of his scoring touch? He’d better. If that’s the case, the Islanders need a scoring line that will be better than Cizikas and that folks is a real issue for the Isles. When the Nelson line is on pace for 11 goals each, that’s not a third line, that’s spells trouble.
If you ask “Then why not bring up Ho-Sang?” Okay, let’s bring back his whopping two goals and his 88 percent save percentage when he and his teammates are on the ice and watch the debacle all over again. It’s one thing to be John Tavares, who’s on pace for 97 points, 20 minutes a game and a 88% save percentage with his team and Josh Ho-Sang who was averaging 14 minutes with the same percentage and if he played the whole year was around 45 points at best. That just doesn’t work and that’s why he was sent down. Ho-Sang must be more than an assist machine and play at both ends of the ice, with and without the puck. He may still get there, but he’ll have to prove himself once again and the Isles cannot afford to bring him up until he does so.
And despite his best efforts, Anthony Beauvillier is on pace for eleven goals and maybe 20 points if he were here the whole season. That just doesn’t work either. If Anthony developed a scoring touch earlier on, this may not be an issue. His defensive numbers are ok, but he needs his other two line mates to help out his numbers and improve. So what the Islanders have been playing with all season long is two top-six players and a six fourth line players, who’s collective two-way game needs some of work.
So What’s Next?
A few keys to look for during the second half
The Islanders must keep their coaching plan simple and run with it. The coaches must go back to what was working and continue to find ways to improve the overall team defense and penalty kill unit and if that means giving Jaro Halak the number one goalie tag for the second half (or trade for one) and giving bigger roles to the younger players over the veterans on defense, than so be it.
Could we see Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera put up more goals than they did in the first half like fans saw last year? That would be helpful, especially from Chimera, who would then make the fourth line even tougher to beat.
The Islanders need to find a role for the Nelson line. Are they going to score more goals or should they concentrate more on defense? Doug Weight said Nelson had one of his best games against the Devils last Sunday. Sorry, that’s too late. Whether people want to hear this or not but Brock Nelson has the talent to get the Isles into the playoffs, he just doesn’t have the consistency and maybe the line mates to get them where they need to be. Maybe trading Nelson is a better move to be made now and improve the overall line. Speaking of trades, that leads me to this final segway…..
Will Garth Snow make a move before the trade deadline? He should. I can’t recall a team averaging fourth in goals in the entire NHL missing the playoffs. Can the Isles offense hold on to that mark? How will injuries affect the Offense? But I think the reason why Snow hasn’t made one yet may be because of the standings I wrote above. Do the Rangers or Carolina have enough? What kind of consistency will we see from the Pennsylvania teams? The rest of the Atlantic do not appear to be any kind of future threat, so maybe this is why the Isles are trying to fix things internally for now. However, I do believe that the Islanders should make a move to improve the club before the week leading to the trade deadline. Whether it’s a Ryan Smyth trade will depend on the standings a few weeks from now and injury statuses of other players. Of course, it does take two teams to make a trade so it will also depend on who’s ready to make a move. For now, it’s a waiting game for most teams. You have to love this time of season. Whatever you do to keep yourselves together, stock up on it.