Why the New York Islanders missed the playoffs

To say this year was a disappointment for the Islanders is to say last year was an amusement. The 2013 season was a full-on thrill in Uniondale, a heady reawakening of a franchise and a fanbase that culminated in the team’s first playoff appearance in seven years. Last year was as much an “amusement ride” as Japan’s Takabisha coaster. This year, then, was as much a disappointment as falling off the darn thing.

That’s what expectations will do to you. After squeezing inside the top eight last spring and then giving the Penguins a real run for their money in the first round, the Islanders entered the 2013-14 season with sky-high hopes. They were returning the same core, led by Hart Memorial nominee John Tavares and some guy named Matt Moulson who scores a lot of goals (more on him in a bit), and looked poised to take up residence among the Eastern Conference’s elite.

When the team won just four times in its first 11 games, GM Garth Snow hastily decided he needed to stir things up. So he signed goalie Evgeni Nabokov to a 26-year deal and quickly traded defenseman Travis Hamonic to Russia for the rights to Alexei Yashin. All jokes aside, Snow did just about the next worse thing in shipping off Matt Moulson and a bucket of draft picks to Buffalo for impending free agent Thomas Vanek.

Vanek played well for the Islanders – about as well as Moulson likely would have – but really never wanted anything to do with the organization. He turned down a hefty contract extension in February, which was his way of telling Snow trade me now or look like an idiot this summer. So Snow listened, traded Vanek at the deadline, and ended up looking like an idiot anyway. It was a fitting punctuation point on an awful season for the Isles, who, like their GM, turned a ripe opportunity into a rotten letdown.

How rotten? The Islanders finished 14th in the East, ahead of only the Panthers and Sabres, two teams pretty much committed to losing. (Call it rebuilding if you want, just know that Florida and Buffalo purposely designed teams unfit to win.) It was a long, six-rung fall down the Conference ladder for the Isles, who are left thinking, once again, how the hell they’re going to climb back up.

So where did it go wrong this year for the most hapless team in hockey? Let’s take a look.

Goaltending 

We could probably end the discussion right here and have ourselves a complete analysis. It’s hard to overstate how bad the goalies were this season for the Islanders, who, most nights, looked like a team trying to shovel out their driveway in the midst of a blizzard. As soon as they scored a goal, Nabokov or Kevin Poulin would give up two more.

Nabokov, in his defense, wasn’t as spectacularly bad as Poulin – and Naby’s midseason injury certainly forced the team’s hand – but he wasn’t good either. Poulin finished the season with 11 wins in 28 games to go alongside a 3.29 GAA and .891 SV% (dead last among 49 qualifying goalies); Nabokov finished with 15 wins in 40 games to go alongside a 2.74 GAA and .905 SV%. Nabokov was better than Poulin, yes, but Alaska is also warmer than the Arctic Circle.

Derailed by injury, Evgeni Nabokov couldn’t provide the same consistent cover in net for the Isles in 2013-14.

Together, Nabokov, Poulin and second backup Anders Nilsson combined for a cumulative SV% of .894, the lowest mark in the league. Not surprisingly – or, perhaps, surprisingly – the Isles finished 28th in goals against per game, at 3.18. At that rate, it does not matter who is shoveling; that’s a blizzard of Snowmaggedon proportions.

Defense 

If the netminders created a blizzard, the defensemen for the Islanders did little to guard against it. And it is this lack of preparation, this failure to compensate for an obvious weakness that became the team’s most fatal flaw – not the goaltending itself. Personnel, after all, is provided; philosophy is decided.

So maybe it’s the system that’s to blame. In sticking to such a wide-open style of hockey, the Isles left their soft spot open to attack. They put the fewest guards where their walls were weakest. But that’s who they are, that’s how they play. Jack Capuano didn’t bring his team to the playoffs in 2013 by emulating the New Jersey Devils, and so it’s hard to blame him for sticking to his guns. If it ain’t broke, after all…

The reason the system was successful last year, with the same exact goalies, was the Islanders were better at protecting their own net. This year, the defensemen weren’t able to keep shooters to the outside and scoring chances came from every direction. Take a look at the spread of shots against the Isles this season – if you can call it a spread, at all. Few teams have such a cluster of attempts inside the hash marks, which raises a systemic question: were the goalies screwing the defensemen or were the defensemen screwing the goalies?

We’ll play it safe and go with a little bit of both.

Penalty Kill 

Well this makes sense. What do you get when you add poor goaltending and poor defense to a team that takes a lot of penalties? An unmitigated disaster. The Islanders gave up 58 power play goals this season, the third most in the league. Their penalty kill finished 29th out of 30 at 77.6 percent, a mark that really starts to reek when you consider its mathematical implications.

But the Islanders weren’t undone by their inability to kill penalties. They were undone by their inability to stay out of the box. Last season, their penalty kill was similarly awful, only you probably didn’t notice because they didn’t let you. On the eve of the playoffs a year ago, I wrote of the Isles:

The one area in which the Islanders faltered this season was the penalty kill, a weakness they shrewdly offset by taking the third fewest penalties in the League. Embedded in their one glaring flaw, then, is glowing evidence of a playoff team: the recognition of a chink in their armor, and the on-ice awareness to conceal it.

Offset? Conceal? Not so, this year. By parading to the sin-bin every night, the Islanders magnified this weakness, exposed this chink in their armor. It was un-playoff-like of them, and they got what they deserve. The Minnesota Wild, on the other hand, are equally futile on the penalty kill (27th out of 30) and they clinched a playoff spot nearly two weeks ago. They took the sixth fewest penalties in the league.

Injuries

The Islanders are somewhat vindicated here, in a look-what-we-were-up-against kind of way. Injuries, of course, can’t entirely account for their ugly season, but they can be pointed to as fuel thrown on the fire. And for the Islanders, it wasn’t how many guys they lost, but who they lost.

Lubomir Visnovsky, the team’s best offensive defenseman, went down in October and didn’t play again until the end of January. He missed a total of 45 games this season. Evgeni Nabokov sat out a month between November and December, returned briefly, and then missed most of January. He failed to surpass 40 starts for the first time in his NHL career. Travis Hamonic, a blue-chip talent on the blue line, was forced to the IR with a concussion in January and missed 13 games. And then, of course, the season came crashing down when Tavares tore his MCL in Sochi.

The defensive outfit was undeniably crippled without Visnovsky and Hamonic. Between the pipes, the damage was not so much in losing Nabokov but in having to turn to Poulin. And up front, the offense has suffered tremendously without Tavares.

Would the Islanders be a playoff team if they had stayed healthy? Probably not. But they wouldn’t have fallen off the Takabisha coaster either.

Take consolation where you can find it.

  • Vaughn Folkert

    Oh, boy! And he is wearing a Rangers jersey? Nice summary of the year– but too much sarcastic sniping (I think the Rangers blue bleeds through a bit A better start to the article would have been to have a much more realistic appraisal of last years team. There was no reason to have such high expectations at the start of this year– had Fleury not had a psychotic like break in goal it would have been four and out; the islanders had average to worse goaltending and a very weak D. None of that got fixed in the summer–NONE. So why would they have a good year this year? And, then on top of that you lose your best D man for most of the season; and goalies are bad as noted above. One needs only to look at goals scored for Islanders–to know where the problems are–not at GF but GA as so nicely summarized above. If you were GM here what would you do? Good D and good G and you have a contender– but don’t all teams look for that. Two less wins than Vancouver— and to call the Islanders the most hapless team in hockey is really, really bulls—t journalism –lemming journalism. Lots of teams have had some really bad rides for years— this team at least had a period of some good rides. And, clearly that are not THE most hapless this year or last– you could write about Edmonton! Then again, try this: write an article that compared the Toronto Maple Leafs, let’s say from the start of the modern era—about 1970 or so–until now vs the Islanders, and include money spent etc etc. You might even write about the Rangers in the same era— lots of teams have bad rides—- be careful who you call the most hapless. (MHO).

    • Will Burchfield

      thanks for the comment, vaughn…i appreciate the passion

      a few points: all the Islanders fans I know – including one I live with – had very high hopes for this team entering the season. some of it may have been overblown as you suggest, but most of it was legitimately founded upon an explosive offense (Isles finished 7th in NHL in goals/gm in 2013). regardless, does it really matter if expectations were reasonable? the fall hurts just the same.

      (also, let’s remember, nabokov was tied for second in the NHL in wins last season, and played well from pretty much start to finish. he broke down in the playoffs, yes, but doesn’t he deserve a better final grade than average-to-worse? I’d say he was solid/good, and have to think there was a little more faith in him entering this season than you imply.)

      visnovsky loss was a big one, no doubt, and i touched on that in the summary. but i think you have to be careful calling him your best defenseman. to me, travis hamonic is the real rock of the team’s blueline, the isles’ version of ryan mcdonagh. this is just personal taste, though.

      surprised to hear you say goals scored was their real problem, not goals against. for most of the season, the isles were a top-10/near top-10 scoring team, their offense the only thing keeping them afloat. just before the Olympics, i wrote this of the islanders:

      “In their 21 wins this season, the Isles have scored 4.10
      goals per game – that’s the cost, the “market price” of victory for a team with
      a cumulative save percentage just over .900. And that average isn’t a product
      of the offense scoring more than it needs to in games the Islanders win.
      Rather, it’s a direct reflection of what has
      to happen for the team to secure two points.”

      so the offense did the best it could under trying circumstances. and ignore the fact that they finished 17th in the league in scoring (ahead of my Rangers though!) – up until the Olympics the Isles were oscillating between 8th and 12th with 2.78 g/gm. after tavares got hurt in Sochi the offense sputtered, losing nearly .2 goals off its game average. in the same way we can’t judge the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers, so can’t we judge the John Tavares-less Islanders.

      and meant no disrespect using the word hapless – luck, after all, isn’t in the team’s control. but when tavares went down with that knee injury against latvia, it was impossible not to think oh of course it would happen to him. and there’s a reason it didn’t happen to anyone else.