Andy Graziano, SNY.TV Twitter
The New York Islanders are only seven games into the 2016-17 season. But it has been an eight-game stretch that has seen them capture only 42.8 percent of possible points, as their 3-4-0 start has them trailing their pace of 64.2 percent last season and 71.4 percent in 2014-15.
Trying to figure out the reason for the regression could be an exercise in futility at this early juncture, as there are still 75 games left on the docket and 150 points to be won or lost before the dust settles and playoff dreams are realized or crushed. But since when has that stopped anyone before?
Fans are antsy and unsettled even though four of the team's last five games have ended in 3-2 final scores with the 3-2-0 record not as bad as it might seem on the surface. Not to mention the losses were to the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens -- two pretty darn good hockey teams.
In the latest loss to Montreal, New York could not muster much through a fairly even, lackluster (should I just say boring) first period. It was the second one that captain John Tavares called "the worst period we have played all season," where Montreal flexed their muscles and forced New York in the neutral zone and on the forecheck into numerous turnovers -- one by rookie Mathew Barzal, playing in only his second NHL game, that led to the Habs' first goal.
He would make another defensive blunder in the third period that led to an interesting scene in the Islanders' dressing room postgame that, to me, defines Barzal's character and willingness to accept responsibility and learn all he can with uncertainty looming as to where he might spend the remainder of the season. After turning his back and losing Philip Danault in the low slot to the right of Thomas Greiss, he allowed the Montreal forward an easy tap-in that put Montreal ahead 2-1 with 11:21 gone by in the third period.
Afterward, there he sat, alone in his stall with lower gear still on while all other players had retreated to the lounge to ready for their commute home. He had just finished a conversation with veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk about the particulars of that play and you can see he was deep in thought, pondering what he was told, taking it in, learning from it. It's all part of the maturation process that will make him a better player in the future -- one who many hoped would get more than a two game look before a final determination is made.
In New York's struggles to put two passes together and generating absolutely no speed through the neutral zone, head coach Jack Capuano decided to switch up his forward lines in the third period and it paid immediate dividends.
Anthony Beauvillier, a revelation to this point, was put on the first line with Tavares and Josh Bailey. Andrew Ladd, with one assist on his ledger so far this season, was put on the fourth line with Casey Cizikas and Jason Chimera, who was there substituting for the injured Nikolay Kulemin. The original 'kid line' was reunited with Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, while Alan Quine and Barzal skated with Cal Clutterbuck.
New York ended up out-shooting Montreal 15-12 in the final frame and won the Corsi battle ,26-23 (23-21 at even strength). It was the shake-up the Islanders needed and it should be very interesting to see if Capuano sticks with them for Thursday night's game in Pittsburgh against Sidney Crosby and the Stanley Cup champions.
With Nick Leddy and Travis Hamonic continuing to work through their first season as partners, the forwards have to adjust as well. Just because Ladd was the marquee signing of the offseason by GM Garth Snow doesn't mean he is the best fit to ride the first seat on the bus with the captain. Ladd is a very good player, make no mistake about it. Try not to read too much into a seven game sample size with a new team and only one pre-season game with a full roster and instead, look to his career. If you do, you will see an 82 game average of 27 goals over the past six seasons. And he hardly played with Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane and nobody of that skill level, to be honest, in Winnipeg. This is a very good player quite capable of replacing the departed Kyle Okposo. He just might not be a 'fit' with a player of Tavares skill set. And that's Ok.
It's on the bench boss to figure out what works best for the system he has implemented. Capuano, when asked about Ladd moving to the fourth line postgame, was not ready to delve into any specifics. "Without speaking to the player, it's not fair to talk to the media about them. We talk to the players all the time about their game, I'm not going to discuss any specific conversations with you guys."
Ladd, very much a seasoned veteran, knows the deal. "We just have to find something, mix it up, he told Newsday postgame. "I'd love to be more productive through seven games, but I also know the kind of player I can be and what I need to do. I'm not too worried about it."
It's that kind of attitude that pulls teams through stretches when maybe they are not at their most mentally sharp. When things are happening like Cizikas jumping the boards in the second period after Barzal had jumped on, you know some are not in the right frame of mind.
The veterans need to get New York over the hump. It's where Ladd, Chimera, Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg, and yes, Tavares, need to make their greatest impact. It's one of the reasons Snow assembled this team the way he has. With the proper mindset accompanied by proper effort and coaching, things should level out soon for a club still trying to find its ideal composition.
Beyond the box:
- 5v5 Corsi leaders: Forwards: Josh Bailey (+8), Anthony Beauvillier (+7), John Tavares (+7). Defenseman: Johnny Boychuk (+7), Thomas Hickey (+7).
- 5v5 Corsi followers: Forwards : Mathew Barzal (-18), Alan Quine (-18), Ryan Strome (-17). Defenseman: Dennis Seidenberg (-23), Calvin de Haan (-21).
- TOI Leaders: Forwards: John Tavares (19:56), Defenseman: Nick Leddy (22:54)
- Shot Attempts: Forwards: John Tavares (6), Defenseman: Johnny Boychuk (9)
- PP blues: Tavares' second period power play goal, on a great play by Ladd, was New York's first at home and second of the season. They are now 2 for 17, 26th in the NHL.
- Faceoff maven: Casey Cizikas won 12 of 19 faceoffs last night and now leads Islanders at 52.4% (65-59) on the season. Jordan Staal is the NHL leader at 69.1% (76-34).