Andy Graziano, SNY.TV Twitter
Since the Islanders' 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks Tuesday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, social media has been ablaze with trepidation over New York's lukewarm start to the 2016-17 campaign.
This is not a column to tell you what to feel, how to feel it or when to feel it. It's merely to present a different opinion on how things have transpired over the first four games and where there is cause for concern, but not, in one opinion, panic.
The specific reasons for the slow start are fairly clear, but starting with the offense, it's no secret to anyone who follows the NHL on a regular basis that New York faced turnover of a larger magnitude than most other clubs when Kyle Okposo was allowed to sign with Buffalo for a couple of very specific reasons, Matt Martin overplayed his hand when it came to negotiating a new contract with general manager Garth Snow and ended up in Toronto and Frans Nielsen decided he wanted a change of scenery to, likely, close out his career with the Detroit Red Wings.
To say Andrew Ladd has not 'clicked' with captain John Tavares would be accurate, but given the pair only played the final preseason game, in Washington, together, it is very premature to label Ladd's signing as, well, anything. It's still a work in progress and there cannot be any doubt that Ladd brings more defensive responsibility and a championship pedigree to Brooklyn. You don't just score 147 goals in your last 448 games, for an average of 27 per, by accident.
Ryan Strome, after hearing from Snow over the summer about his need to return to center, has not spent much time there due to the arrivals of Mathew Barzal and Alan Quine on the roster. The past two games he has been playing wing, where he historically struggles, with Quine in the middle. After a spirited opener against the Rangers, Strome's play has tailed off considerably over the past three games. New York needs to figure this out sooner rather than later to avoid a repeat performance of Ryan's 2015-16 season.
Jason Chimera has been great in replacing Martin, still showing tremendous speed and a clever offensive touch, as evidenced by his pass to Anders Lee, setting up New York's second goal last night and Casey Cizikas has done his part in replacing what the Islanders lost in Nielsen. While the power play has missed Nielsen's zone entries, the key to reclaiming its strength is on the blue line, where in transition the Islanders are struggling yet again to maintain speed and structure through the neutral zone. It's hard to not see the offensive struggles work themselves out over the course of the next week or so.
Nick Leddy, for the second straight season, has struggled mightily in the opening stretch. Last year, it was offensively. This year, it's defensively and has permeated to partner Travis Hamonic. The pair has clearly been the Islanders worst through four games, with matching minus-7 ratings and slumping possession statistics, Leddy at 49.3 and Hamonic 46.2, which is only better than Shane Prince and Quine, who have played two fewer games.
It was Leddy, who lost Joe Pavelski coming out of the corner last night, allowing the Sharks captain to glide into the slot for a game winning deflection of Joe Thornton's pass with 2:11 remaining in the third period. Great play by Pavelski, who is one of the best in the league at knocking pucks out of mid-air, but if Leddy maintains his gap control, it's likely the puck never finds its way past Jaroslav Halak and New York gets a point out of a tough Western conference matchup.
Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey, Calvin de Haan and Dennis Seidenberg have all been fine, but if the Islanders are going anywhere this season, it's on the shoulders of their top pair of Leddy and Hamonic. The two simply must play better.
While the play of Anthony Beauvillier has been sufficient to give serious thought to him remaining on the roster past the nine game mark, his average ice time of 9:05 needs to be higher to adequately assess the risk-reward of such a move. Barzal has only suited up once, the 2-1 loss in Washington, and was expected to play last night, only to fall victim to head coach Jack Capuano's superstition of not changing his lineup after a win. This has to be decided rather quickly, as Ryan Pulock is waiting to give the aforementioned struggling power play a boost and provide the needed comfort of an extra defenseman on the roster.
With all that being said, there are positive signs that are being glossed over during this 1-3 start. Chimera, Cizikas, Brock Nelson and Cal Clutterbuck on offense, the 4th line and its steady two-way play despite swapping Martin for Nikolay Kulemin, Hickey on defense and the goaltending of Halak and Thomas Greiss. And that penalty kill (14-for-15, 93.3 percent).
Having played four games in six nights against the likes of your most hated division rival and the high-octane Capitals on the road before meeting two of the best the West has to offer, including the conference champions, was not ideal. I'd argue that New York could have, with some good old fashioned luck, taken the Capitals game and last night as well. Last season, New York was 10-7-3 through 20 games, a quarter of the season. The previous year, 14-6-0, but 6-5-0 after 11.
Last season, the Anaheim Ducks were 15-15-6 after shutting out Edmonton to close out 2015. They had scored 68 goals to that point for an average of 2.6 per game. They finished as the best team in the Pacific division by going 31-10-5 from Jan. 1 forward, scoring 150 goals (3.3 average). Sometimes a team just needs time to awaken from its slumber, although it may not be crystal clear as to what is causing the malaise. Just as it's equally unclear as to what causes the sudden turnaround. It's certainly not unprecedented.
There is no question the Islanders also need to start faster and maintain momentum longer. Lee made that point in the locker room postgame. "It was clear we were sluggish, don't know if it's a result of all the games here to start, but a lot of other teams are doing the same anyway so I think we were slow at times and it cost us," Lee said. "We need to play a full sixty minutes and maintain possession better."
The two-day break, which includes a full day off today, comes at a good time for New York. A time to review the film, go over what needs to be corrected and come out Friday against the Arizona Coyotes with a new sense of urgency. While it's clearly not time to push the panic button considering only 5 percent of the season has been played, things can snowball pretty quickly if they aren't careful.