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Taub’s 10 Thoughts: All-Star Break

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The New York Islanders will not play another hockey game till next Friday February 1st. They deserve the nine-day vacation after their surprising, yet stellar first half of the season, which sees them sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division. Mathew Barzal, will rightfully be representing them over this weekend in San Jose at the All-Star Game.

A lot of things have been very noticeable under the new regime of g.m. Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz, as well as just the overall direction the franchise is heading. Each week through the end of this season, our Rob Taub will key in on what has stood all year long from recent games, weeks, or season long trends.

TEN THOUGHTS:

  1. Barry Trotz is the real MVP of the first half. No offense to Robin Lehner — who was voted team MVP by the players and should be the Masterton Trophy winner — but Barry Trotz has been everything to the Islanders since the season began. Yes it’s the players who win the games on the ice, but it’s the coach that prepares them mentally and physically for the grind. Trotz has done a phenomenal job having the team ready for games and making sure they know when to put teams down for the count. The Isles transformation defensively under Trotz could be compared to a miracle worker curing cancer. From giving up the most goals (293) in a decade last season to the least (118!!) through the first half, what Trotz has been able to instill in his team is unbelievable.

Note: Trotz’s club has also not given up an even strength in over 197 minutes of play dating back to January 17th against New Jersey.

The video below also can’t deny the fact that Trotz has lived up the billing. Team being in first place says it all.

      2. Josh Bailey’s so called regression still hasn’t occurred. So many expected Bailey to fall off when a certain someone left for Toronto on July 1 last summer, but he’s done nothing off the sorts. Does Bailey still show his unwillingness to shoot sometimes? Yes, but he still has 78 shots through 48 games and has a 14.1% shooting percentage. All those points that production that was supposed to be lost, Bailey has made up with the chemistry with his two new linemates, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee. Bailey is not on the pace to break his career-high 71 points from last season, but he is on pace to have yet another successful season and finally eclipse 20 goals — the first time in his career. Could Bailey do a little bit more in the second half? Sure. Make no mistake though, he’s still doing the right things with and without the puck that have contributed to where the Isles currently stand at the break.

      3. The veterans haven’t disappointed. People before the season started anointed that the Isles were going to be old and slow. Problem is, those old and slow guys have been at the heart of the club’s renaissance through the first 48 games. Johnny Boychuk, 35, has turned back the clock and is playing like the version of himself when he was traded to the Isles at the start of the 2014-15 campaign. The newcomers, Val Filppula (34) and Leo Komarov (31), have solidified the bottom-six and been stout defensively and on the penalty kill. Cal Clutterbuck (32) is re-energized in his spot on the Best Fourth Line in Hockey. And before they went down with injury, Thomas Hickey and Andrew Ladd were playing steady and noticeable. Hopefully that doesn’t change when both return to the lineup.

And let us not forget about goaltender Thomas Greiss. Greiss — who was coming off his most difficult season as a pro a year ago, 13 wins, 3.82 GAA and a .892 SV% — has been a force nearly the entire year. Whatever goalie director Mitch Korn and coach Piero Greco did to evolve his game, Greiss has looked like a completely different netminder this year. Confident, clutch, not rattled are all the words to describe the kind of attitude Greiss has exemplified all season long. 14-8-0 in 24 starts, a budding duo with his 1-A in Lehner, Greiss’s rebound has been one of story lines that should be getting more attention.

4. What shots do you speak of? Remember the days of the Isles giving up 50-plus shots with regularity last season? Yeah, me either. If you watched the Islanders the last few weeks — and overall throughout the season — they are structured so well in their own zone, that they are barely allowing the opponents any offense. The Isles do still rank in the bottom ten of shots against per game, but a lot of that could be numbered from when the team was still adjusting to Trotz’s defensive system in the first 20 to 30 games. In their recent hot streak (15-3-1), the club allowed 40 or more shots twice, 30 or more five times, 20-plus shots four times, and less than 20 shots three times. Allowing shots on a whim is no longer in the players psyche and playing tighter, more disciplined in their own end is.

5. The power play still needs to be fixed. The Islanders have enjoyed success in every facet in the first half, except with the power play. An ongoing problem since the season got started, the Isles right now rank 24th in the NHL on the man-advantage, converting at just 16.8%. There have been glimpses of how much better the team would be if they were just an average power play (see Ranger game at MSG), but the both units haven’t been consistent enough. Many of the moments the Isles needed their power play to come up big, they’ve failed, sometimes miserably. Blame Scott Gomez all you want — he does get a lot — but its on the players to move the puck quicker and force the opposition to chase them. All the team needs to do is watch how the Blackhawks moved the puck with rapid pace against them on Monday, and realize that’s who they need to mirror for the rest of the season.

What the Islanders need to do is throw out their power play from the first part of the season and try a whole new approach down the stretch. Playoff teams get equal help from both their special teams units. Trotz’s crew should be no different.

6. Pulock problem. Other than the power play, I don’t think one thing has infuriated or puzzled Isles fans more than Ryan Pulock not being able to hit the net. It’s become a serious issue and one that if the hard-shooting defensemen got right, the team would have a huge weapon to their advantage moving forward. Pulock — after his excellent second half a year ago — hasn’t struggled overwhelmingly on the offensive side of things — 19 points in 48 games. He’s taken 100 shots already this year and only produced three goals. That itself doesn’t raise a huge concern, but proves that maybe Pulock is trying a little too hard to pick his spots instead of just gripping it and ripping shots.

7. Curious case of Jordan Eberle. It’s easy to say that Eberle’s status as an Islander is in limbo. Many have pointed out to him not possibly being a part of the team’s future moving forward. Where the problem lies with Eberle: He’s still only 28, he’s a playmaker, and is one of the more skilled players offensively on the club. The Islanders don’t have many players who have all those three qualities, which does make Eberle’s value higher. The one negative for Eberle has been his difficulty adjusting to Trotz’s structure. It’s not saying that he doesn’t fit, but his struggles this year have definitely made him expendable. As a UFA, Eberle’s future as an Islander will definitely be determined in the second half. His recent strong play since coming back from injury has been helped the team win, but it will only make the decision for the Isles brass much less easier.

8. Scott Mayfield’s resurrection is only beginning. Tell me what you would have thought if I told you Scott Mayfield would be the best defensemen for the Islanders in their first half? Probably a lot of questionable looks. But seriously, it’s been wonderful to see Mayfield finally have success at the NHL level. The 6’5 behemoth has always had his doubters — due to his poor skating — but he’s shown this season that he’s coming into his own. Some could argue it’s a year late after Mayfield made noise making the team out of camp last season, only to be sidelined in the beginning of February and come back when the season was on ice. Mayfield, who’s making an incredibly cheap $1.45 million over the next five seasons, has earned his role as a top-four defender and might only be on his way to bigger and better things.

Note: Him and Devon Toews could be the most important defensive duo for the team’s run to the postseason.

9. This team is a different animal on Coliseum ice. The sentence writes itself. No one knew where the Isles would be when they opened up their Coliseum schedule back on December 1st, but everyone knew the impact the building would have on the team and its opponents. Now — with their remaining home dates after February 16th all taking place on Long Island — the Isles have already laid the foundation for what will be a monster advantage going forward. 5-1-1 in seven games on Long Island so far, two of those wins in comeback fashion so far; the team takes it to another level in front of the raucous crowd at the barn. Trotz said the Coliseum games would be worth at least 12 points, but I’m not sure he realized just how much more passionate and intense his troops are when they play in their true home.

10. Thank you Peter Chiarelli. It was a sad day yesterday when the Edmonton Oilers relieved their now former g.m. of his duties. Chiarelli was everything the Islanders had in Garth Snow, except he was worse. If Chiarelli wasn’t full of incompetence, the Isles wouldn’t have stolen Johnny Boychuk, robbed Jordan Eberle, and fleeced the Oilers for reigning Calder winner Mat Barzal and 20-goal scorer Anthony Beauvillier. If there’s another banner befitting to be raised at Belmont, it’s Chiarelli.

And for that we say thank you Chia. You will be deeply missed. Signed, Isles fans everywhere.

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