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Simpson: More Cause for Concern with the Islanders

The past seven days of the Islanders’ schedule served as a rude reminder of the ups and downs of an NHL season. Recoiling from two disappointing losses to Washington that all but closed a run at the division championship, the Isles bounced back with two solid shutout wins against the Rangers, all but ending their rival’s chances of catching the Isles or making the playoffs.

With four games to come against Buffalo and New Jersey, two teams the Isles have handled fairly easily, there was cause for optimism that at least the team could avoid fourth place. To whet appetites still more, the Sabres planned to give rookie netminder, Michael Houser, his NHL debut. Forty-eight hours later, the Sabres had claimed two comeback wins with Houser leading the way.

In the first game the Islanders took the lead and then played as if the game was over, while Buffalo kept clawing away before gaining the lead with minutes to go; the second game Barry Trotz shuffled his lineup, then watched as his squad gave away another two-goal lead before losing the shootout. They limped home with a single point to show for their efforts.

While most of the players Trotz moved around between the two games were bottom-six forwards, his decision to have Mathew Barzal sit out the Tuesday game raised more than a few eyebrows. True, Barzal’s been struggling of late and was a turnover machine on Monday night, but the coach’s decision snapped Barzal’s consecutive game streak dating back to his Calder Trophy-winning rookie year—something Trotz knew about but dismissed as unimportant to him. As Arthur Staple reported in The Athletic, the coach explained: “I don’t have a lot of regard for personal milestones — I believe all in the team stuff.” Then, as if he realized how what he said might sound, he added:

Not everyone was quite as positive.

Ever since Trotz arrived on Long Island, his relationship with Barzal has been a subject of speculation. The coach has not hesitated to bench his star and still questions his defensive play (note that Barzal’s empty-net goal against the Rangers was his first career ENG). Thus it was understandable that the notion that sitting Barzal down was “load management” or simply giving him a rest came under skeptical scrutiny.  Had it not been for Tom Wilson’s violent outburst against the Rangers, Barzal’s situation might have gotten more attention.

It’s been a rough week for the Isles’ chief offensive threat. Last week he was fined $2,000 by the NHL for embellishment, a decision that did not sit well with many fans:

Of more serious concern is that the trade for Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac simply has not worked out to date. Every game makes Anders Lee’s absence more notable. For all of the discussion at the time about how Palmieri and Zajac were an ideal fit for the Islanders, Leo Komarov has contributed just as much offensively as Palmieri and more than Zajac.

While the top-two defensive pairing of Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech has gotten a lot of media attention lately, the remaining defenders have been struggling outside of Nick Leddy’s offensive contributions. Finally, while Semyon Varlamov’s shutout streak returned the Isles to the Jennings Trophy race for least goals allowed, the two games against Buffalo didn’t help their chances.

The Islanders have three games to prepare for the playoffs. If Trotz wants to do some more juggling as he prepares for the postseason, now’s the time to do it, because it’s clear that the Islanders will not have home ice for the first round (and beyond, barring major upsets). At the moment, the question should no longer be making the playoffs, but how far the team can go. That road’s become just a little more difficult.



You can chat with Brooks Simpson on Twitter at @BrooksDSimpson

About Brooks Simpson

Brooks Simpson writes, teaches, and speaks on American history and politics as a professor at Arizona State University. A native Long Islander, he has been an Islanders fan since the franchise's inception in 1972.

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