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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.