The New York Islanders knew they had adjustments to make this season before it even began with training camp back in September of 2015.
A new building, new game-day ritual and new transportation options just to name several.
"Today was the first day the guys couldn't take the train in. Every day, there's something. It's the first year, you have to find your way. We ran into a problem with transportation down and the players had to figure it out." is how head coach Jack Capuano described the LIRR issues post-game after a listless 4-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. And that's off the ice.
On the ice, it seems the coaching staff has made some adjustments as well after analyzing the results of 2014-15, which, ironically, was the team's best regular season in 29 years. The point total shouldn't have been, and seemingly wasn't, enough as the team lost in a seventh and deciding game of the playoffs opening round to the Washington Capitals.
But after five seasons of a consistent approach that has yielded mixed results with Capuano behind the helm, it was time to conform to what the NHL's secret of success seems to be…defense.
Last season, the Islanders scored 245 goals, fourth in the league, three behind the New York Rangers, 12 behind the Dallas Stars and 14 shy of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They scored four goals or greater 27 times (32.9%) and were shutout in only three appearances (Vancouver, Philadelphia and Colorado).
However, they allowed 230 goals, which placed them 22nd in the league ahead of only eight other teams, including such historically rock solid defensive clubs as Toronto, Arizona, Buffalo and Edmonton. There was a need to tighten it up and lock it down. As playoff teams who have withstood the grind before them had all done. The philosophy has been tried and come true in mostly all sports, not just hockey. Defense wins championships, pitching will always beat hitting, etc….
This year, the Islanders have focused more on their efforts in the defensive zone and especially on the penalty kill, which ranked 26th last year at only 78% efficiency. They have seen their special teams when down a man rise to new heights, all the way to second (87.2%) behind only the Anaheim Ducks. They have focused on blocking shots (8th) and keeping the crease clear with a collapsing mentality for Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss to face less second and third chances which has led to a combined save percentage of .919, above the league average (.915) and eighth in the NHL. They are also eighth in total goals allowed with 115.
What that has led to however when you watch the team play is a clear downturn in their Corsi possession numbers (Only two players, Frans Nielsen and Travis Hamonic, are up over last year to date) and a struggle to move the puck consistently out of their own zone in transition, which happens to be the biggest driver in generating consistent offense. Nick Leddy has really struggled in this capacity so far after being so stellar just 12 months earlier. He has seen the third largest drop in possession statistics, leading only Johnny Boychuk and Mikhail Grabovski for the unwanted honor.
Offensively, New York has slipped to 12th in goals scored with 127, their 2.70 goals per game down from last season's 2.99. If you subscribe to the eye-test, it's clear to see New York is struggling in the neutral zone and spending way too much time on the perimeter. Last season, they were second in the league with 33.8 shots per game. This year? 13th at 30.3.
Captain John Tavares, speaking after last night's loss in a game that wasn't as close as the final score, made mention with his post-game comments.
"It's been a little different story for us this year, certainly…last year, we scored a lot of goals and played with a great pace but struggled keeping the puck out of our net, especially at crucial times. Our penalty kill was up and down. This year, it's been completely the opposite. Trying to get our offensive game going and build on some of the good things we are doing in our own end. Hopefully, we can match those two together and we can be really dangerous."
Last year, the penalty kill and power play, as one example, were never on the same page, each producing at their own pace but independent of one another - one going while the other struggled and then flipping. The pace of the Islanders offense led to too many odd-man rushes against and high quality scoring chances were finding their way to the back of the net off second and third chances.
Matt Martin, speaking off the fact that the team has played only two games in eight days, also spoke of the consistency needed…"You kind of get into a rhythm during the season and I don't think, as a group, we were very sharp overall. In the second, especially, just not good enough. That is not an excuse. We didn't play hard enough and were not physical enough. With a team that has that much skill, you need to get in their way. We need to be able to match all facets of our game and we need to find that consistency between our offense and defense. Last year, our last 20 games weren't great. We need to find our complete game coming out of the break here."
Brock Nelson summed it all up perfectly and very simply…"We have not really played our best. We need to come back from this break rejuvenated and ready to go. Lots of games coming up".
Lots of games indeed. The Islanders will play their final 35 over a span of 67 days. Upon coming back from the break, next Tuesday against Minnesota, they will have played only two games in 15 days. Plenty of time to get rested and fully healthy.
Tavares closed out his comments with "one game at a time, one day at a time." Those games and days seem to go by very quickly, almost as fast as you can blink. New York needs to marry its new found commitment to defense with its offense and transition of last year.
Nobody wants to think of the potential result if they can't.