With last night’s 4-2 defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes, the New York Islanders officially reached the end of the first quarter of the season. At 11-7-2, the club finds themselves one point out of first place in the wildly competitive Metropolitian Division, and in sole possesion of sixth place in the Eastern Conference. 20 games is still a small portion of how the team will fair the rest of the way, but our Rob Taub broke down what caught his eye in the early going.
Here’s his 20 observations.
1. John Tavares is playing at the highest level we’ve ever seen in his career. His 23 points is tied for the team lead with Josh Bailey (will get to him later). Tavares is averaging 1.20 points per game, which is the most he’s done throughout his nine-year career. The Mississauga, Ontario native is in the top ten in goals, tied for the tenth most points in the league, and his possession numbers are near the top on the team.
2. Andrew Ladd has played with a chip on his shoulder and the Isles have benefitted immensely from it. Ladd, who struggled out of the gate a year ago, has looked like a completely different player. He’s become a huge spark that’s apart of the team’s second line with rookie standout Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle. Ladd is picking up points (9) and making a difference each night, a complete 180 from last season, where he only recorded one point in his first 11 games. What’s most notable about Ladd this year, is he’s playing a more grittier game. He’s playing more physical because he’s finally healthy, and when he’s got the puck on his stick, he’s letting that underrated shot do his talking for him.
3. Nick Leddy has finally become that true number one defensemen he was brought here to be. Not to say that he wasn’t a number one in the past few years, but through 20 games Leddy has played nearly flawless. Doug Weight said before the season that Leddy had the chance to be a Norris candidate, and so far he’s lived up to the billing. Always known for his smooth skating, Leddy has taken that skill and meshed it with a more offense-heavy mindset. He’s already the team leader in points for a defensemen with 16, but defensively Leddy has become a steadier presence and a stalwart that can be deployed by Weight in any situation.
4. Anders Lee has become the glue of the first line. The Minnesota native does not getting the credit he deserves, because critics are usually talking about the Isles top line with Josh Bailey and John Tavares getting more of the fanfare. That shouldn’t be the case as through the first 20 games, Lee has not been moved from the top line when the team is struggling or having a bad night. He was able to produce with Jordan Eberle when he had his turn on the line, and he’s not missing a beat with Josh Bailey –with whom he played most of last year with — on the opposite wing from him now. Already with 21 points, ten of those assists, New York is reaping the benefits of Lee being the consummate producer on the top line each night.
5. Barclays Center has become a fortress for the Islanders. Even with all the talk of bad ice, how much the players hate the commute, etc., the Isles have turned Barclays in to the home ice advantage good teams need to have to be successful. They have yet to lose in regulation, and the two overtime losses, the team dominated the majority of the game. In the six wins, the team has scored five goals or more, and they have outscored their opponents 37-25. It seems like the Isles are never out of a game at home nowadays, something that can be huge when February and March come around.
6. The trio of Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech will get better as the season progresses. Doug Weight has deployed these three just as many expected he would, which was whoever plays the best is going to get the nod each night. Adam Pelech has really shown why Garth Snow protected him in the expansion draft, as he has had very few hiccups in his game so far. Pulock and Mayfield on the flip side have had some ups and downs, but they have both proven why they are valuable pieces.
7. Thomas Hickey and Dennis Seidenberg being substituted for the likes of Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield have not yet hurt the Isles in any major way yet. It was evident before the season that both Hickey and Seidenberg’s roles could become diminished as New York moved to a younger nucleus on defense, and so far that’s exactly what has occurred. Those two being sacrificed for the younger Pulock and Mayfield have played solid in the time given to them. Allowing the change has and still will give Garth Snow and the coaching staff a look at which of the two will be a part of the future with the club.
8. Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss have done a commendable job in goal. 20 games in, it’s hard to believe neither of the two have yet to grab the reins as the legit number one. But in the 1A-1B role, both goalies have played well enough to have the Isles fighting for the top spot in the Metro. Both have run hot and cold, Halak more earlier in the season, and Greiss as of late. If you cut out the Dougie blowouts (shoutout to Mike Carver), Halak and Greiss have given the Isles a chance to get two points every night. There is room for improvement as both have a subpar save percentage hovering around .900 (Greiss with .904 and Halak with .896), but both also need to cut down on letting in softies.
9. Jordan Eberle has fit in like a glove. Through 20 games, Eberle has recorded 14 points, and the reason Garth Snow dealt for him has been on full display. Eberle has provided a ton of skill to the Isles top two forward lines. He, unintentionally has thrived on the second line, despite the fact that everyone was penciling him in next to John Tavares for the whole season. Eberle has also taken the pressure of the likes of Tavares, and his chemistry with Mathew Barzal has given the Isles a dynamic threat which is setting them up for success for the rest of the year.
10. Mathew Barzal is the real deal. Barzal has come on to the scene, and busted right through the fourth wall. He’s the league leader in points for rookies and he is fourth on the team in points. Barzal has taken the role of the second line center and thrived, showing shades of the former-Isle Frans Nielsen. His ability to create plays shows he’s a difference maker every time he steps out on to the ice. Watching Barzal wheel and deal with the puck and enter the offensive zone has been a treat to watch, which has many fans savoring how much better the 20-year old will be once his body develops.
11. Special teams is still a question mark when it comes to this team. Since the start of the season, the Islanders power play and penalty kill have been a mere image of each other. The power play which has woken up in recent weeks, costed New York dearly early in the season, while the penalty kill was staying in the right direction. Now the power play is showing its Jekyll-and-Hyde nature yet again, while the pk has struggled as of late. Oh, and the shorthanded goals need to stop, and stop immediately. If New York can find a balance with special teams, they will find themselves in a much better position as the year goes on.
12. Casey Cizikas has brought his heart and soul every night. After a injury-filled season a year ago, Cizikas has elevated his game and is making an impact each and every night. He has become the engine that fuels the Isles bottom two lines, but also his aggressive style of play has become a bigger threat in the Isles attack. Cizikas has mastered the faceoff circle, leading the team in faceoff win percentage with 51%. His plus-6 is tied for second best on the team, which proves his defensive game is on the same level as his offensive output.
13. Doug Weight has handled Josh Ho-Sang the right way. Despite the demotion, Weight has allowed Ho-Sang the chance to develop and learn from his mistakes. We all know the pizzazz Ho-Sang brings, but becoming a more defensively solid player is the bigger need, which Weight is trying to engrain in the 21-year old. Allowing him over 13 minutes a game, Weight is giving Ho-Sang the opportunity to become more menacing for opponents who can’t match his speed.
14. Johnny Boychuk has quietly had a fantastic start to the season. Boychuk, who’s age always come in to question, has looked particularly solid in all facets of the game. He leads the team in plus minus with a plus-9, while offensively, he is generating more scoring chances for his teammates. Boychuk is second on the team in ice time, proving that he doesn’t seem to be losing his step and Weight and the staff have provided him with their full trust to go up against the opposition’s best.
15. Brock Nelson is best suited for the fourth line. Coming in to this season, Nelson was heavily talked about as someone who needed to take his game to a whole other level, especially with three young guns breathing down his neck. People will argue Nelson is not a fourth line player, but when he started the season there, he looked his most productive and most active. Nelson this year has also shown a bit more physicality in his game, which is what is needed from a fourth-line player. And yes if he’s going to go invisible — as the folks say — then him being on the fourth line is not such a bad thing.
16. Offensively, the Islanders house one of the deepest attacks in the league. Everyone knew that the offense was the last thing to worry about before the season, but I don’t think many thought they were going to be this good. New York has scored 72 goals, is averaging 3.60 goals per game, and they have a plus-7 goal differential. Three players already have over 20 points, while two players already are in the teens. Doug Weight has been able to roll out four lines every night, while the top six could make a case for one of the best in the league.
17. This team has yet to find their footing on the road. When the Isles are away from the friendly confines of Barclays Center, you know you’re in for a wild ride. New York is 5-7-0 on the road, and they have had a plethora of games where they come slow out of the gate or don’t play a full 60 minutes. There have been games they should have won on the road that they lost, but it doesn’t take away the fact, that if they don’t begin to find consistency as the visiting team, it will ruin their season.
18. Doug Weight is not Jack Capuano 2.0. This notion needs to be put to rest already. Weight’s mentality towards the game and his players are a complete 360 from the likes of the former. Him telling it like it is, showing his emotions on the bench mid game or in the post game presser with Shannon, shows that he knows the right buttons to push and which player needs a kick in the pants now and again. Oh, and his handling of the young players — Barzal, Beauviller, Ho-Sang, Pelech, Mayfield and Pulock — shows absolutely no comparison to Capuano, who would bury his young guys, who played with the ultimate fear of making mistakes.
19. Josh Bailey not being a good player is no longer relevant. Bailey has shoved it down all the haters throats with his team-leading 23 points. The 28-year old in short order has proven that his career year last season was not a fluke. Bailey has been a factor each and every night, and he has given head coach Doug Weight another guy he can thrown anywhere in the lineup and he can succeed or make others around him better. His ability to adapt to whether it’s John Tavares or Mathew Barzal, shows why he is such a key piece that will get paid to be here long term.
20. The Islanders have turned the corner. It’s clear that this is a different team from the turmoil-filled one a season ago. You don’t beat the best teams in their respective conference back-to-back Saturdays, and both think this team is on the verge of something special The culture has changed. The youth have finally arrived and are setting this team in the right direction. Demeanor and accountability wise, it’s the best it’s been since the Ted Nolan, hell even the Peter Laviolette days. The burning desire to win and it’s here to stay.