After being pleasantly surprised throughout the first two months of the season, once the calendar turned to December the Isles have played like the team many experts thought they would. The outstanding play of the top six forwards allowed the Islanders to rise towards the top of the Metro. Outside of those top six forwards (Leddy?) every other player on this roster has been a disappointment to some level, and the month of December has brought that issue to light. It was a matter of time before this caught up to the Islanders, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. The top six forwards can’t carry this team through the entire season. While much of the debate has been about goaltending and defense, the bottom six forwards have been given a bit of a pass. Let’s look at some of the more important players in that unit and how they have struggled this season.
The most obvious disappointment is Brock Nelson. So much so that he has replaced Josh Bailey as the most criticized Islander, and fairly so. He is a three-time 20 goal scorer that should be getting better as he enters his prime. There has not been enough growth in his game. Before looking at his hockey card this season, the eye test tells you that he is having an uninspired season. His statistics confirm those suspicions. He is on pace to match last year’s 20 goal output (he has had only one season where he scored more than that, 26 in 2016). The Isles have been waiting for Nelson to step up in the goal department and become an annual 25 goals a year player. While it is not impossible with a good second half, he has shown nothing of reaching that milestone again. In addition, Nelson who has never been a playmaker has considerably less assists this season than in the past. Last year he had a career high of 25 assists, so far, he only has four. This has taken his points per game from a career level of .5 to .33. There are quality reasons why Nelson has fallen out of the top group of six mostly dealing with his inconsistency. When Nelson’s scoring touch goes cold, he does not provide much else for the team. Unless he can change that narrative, there is little that will save his season.
The next two players are a bit more surprising. Most people would not believe that Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck would end up on a biggest disappointments list but here they are. Whether you bought into the “Greatest Fourth Line” or “E=MC2” hype or not there was not debate that these two (in addition to Matt Martin) were an interictal part of the Islanders’ success. Both players got good contracts out of this success and can still live up to them. After a bump in scoring last season, Cizikas is back to his career average near .3 points per game. Clutterbuck is also having an average year when it comes to scoring, he has averaged .3 points a game in each of the last three seasons. That is not the whole story with these two though. The biggest issue has been puck possession. While each player is more than satisfactory in their own end, they don’t look like the same players they were two seasons ago. At their peak they would create offense and were a pretty good forechecking unit. Not only would they turn the game with physicality but with puck possession.
Starting with Cizikas, his Corsi numbers have gone down each of the last three seasons. Some of this drop can be explained by his increase in defensive zone starts, but this year’s Fenwick For Percentage is troubling. Using the Fenwick calculations, when Cizikas was on the ice the Isles were more likely to give up a shot then take one (excluding blocked shots). Those opportunities for Islander opponents has been going up. Last year while on the ice, the Islanders had 49% of the shots while Cizikas was on the ice to this year only having 45%. Clutterbuck has also experienced this drop. He has a three year drop in both Corsi (which includes blocked shots) and Fenwick. In 2014-15 Clutterbuck had a Corsi CF% of 51% down to 43.8% this season (48.3% in 15-16 and 47.3% in 16-17). The Fenwick numbers tell the same story (53.1% 14-15, 48.2% 15-16, 47.1% 16-17, and 44.2% 17-18). The statistics show that Cizikas and Clutterbuck are not possessing the puck to the levels they have in the past. While I understand there are many who do not believe in these stats, they agree with what my eyes are telling me. Plenty of help could be given to the backend if these two were able to possess the puck to the levels they have in the past. This needs to be a forecheck and not a line that is trapped in their own zone.
While there are other disappointments in the bottom six, these three have the best chance to turn it around. Guys like Beauvillier, Ho-Sang, Chimera, and Prince need to step up their games as well. Someone needs to create space in order to give Nelson opportunities to score if Nelson can’t do it himself. It is also obvious that the Isles never replaced Matt Martin. While the toughness was great it was the puck possession that made those guys such an important line. It is looking less likely that the solutions to these problems are internal. These problems look like they may be easier to solve than goaltending or defense, and therefore need to get on it before the season slips away.