The most anticipated game of the season takes place tonight for the New York Islanders. They will welcome back old friend John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game that goes way beyond the headlines. Heading into tonight, things seem a little bit hairy for the Isles the past few weeks, despite them still holding on to first place in the Metro. But with a win tonight, Barry Trotz’ troops can get back on track.
Until the end of the season, our Rob Taub every Thursday will give his observations on what has stood out to him. All observations come from the perspective of things that happened in previous games, weeks, or have been a season-long trend.
1. The team needs to get back to what’s made them successful. Over the past two weeks — aside from the wins in Columbus and Minnesota — the Islanders have looked off at both ends of the ice. They’re allowing more shots and more high-danger chances, something that seemed to be an afterthought up until this point. What’s also be noticeable is the reliance too much upon goaltending. Granted, the team has still allowed the least amount of goals and Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner are still top five in save percentage. But the way the defense has spent more time in its own zone over a recent stretch of games has some around the country a little unnerved. Offensively, even with the team not scoring in bunches, Trotz’ crew must revert back to smothering the opposition in their own zone. When the Islanders have done that to teams this year, they’ve won.
2. The time has come for the Triple B’s to be reunited. Trotz threw out the line blender multiple times during his clubs’ Western Canada swing and did the same Tuesday night in the loss to Calgary. But, he has yet to put the Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Jordan Eberle trio back together. A lot of fans have called for that threesome to be assembled again with the Isles recent struggles. That line did have its ups and downs earlier this season, but all you have to do is go back to the second half of last season to see how dominant they were. Playing again with Beauvillier and Eberle would be essential for Barzal — he’s got only six points (three goals, three assists) since coming back from the All-Star break. It would also be beneficial for all three because of their skill and ability to drive the offense, something the Isles have been missing from their game lately.
3. Sacrificing offense for defense has come with a price. This has been the narrative since Trotz took over as head coach. He said fixing the defense would be “easy”, and well it has. His team — a ton of credit to the vastly improved defense and goaltending — is still leading the league in the least amount of goals allowed. But that fact comes with another reality: the Islanders don’t generate enough with the puck. Per espn.com the Islanders rank second to last in the league in shots for per game and 22nd in goals per game. Even getting someone at the deadline — Mark Stone or Matt Duchene come to mind — would most likely have made a small difference with those numbers. But take this into consideration, everyone was aggravated with how last year unfolded when the Isles were doing a complete reverse. Focusing everything on offense and not playing a lick of defense leading to a lot of 6-5, 5-4 affairs. Do we really need to see that come back?
4. Recalling up Josh Ho-Sang or Michael Dal Colle could help. With Lou Lamoriello standing pat at the deadline and the offense in a bit of a funk, the Ho-Sang/Dal Colle debate has some legs to it. While Lamoriello didn’t say it himself, it’s clear that both are extra depth for the postseason. Revisiting the notion of either youngster or even both back on the varsity for the rest of the year could give the team a shot in the arm offensively. During both their stints in the lineup this season, the Islanders won a ton of games — 13 of 17 with Dal Colle, nine of ten with Ho-Sang — and each did a decent job of helping drive the teams’ attack. Dal Colle would also help the Islanders with his size and shot; they could even use it on the power play too. Ho-Sang brings speed and creativity, two things for a bit now that have been stagnant among the forward group.
5. Ryan Pulock has really turned it on since the break. I harped on this right before the end of the first half of the season, and again vehemently at when the Isles were set to return from their nine-day vacation. He’s shut me up now with his excellent play of late. Since returning from the break, Pulock has been arguably the Islanders best defenseman. His 11 points in his last 13 games put him the team lead in points for a d-man and also saw him eclipse the 30-point mark for the second straight season. What you’ve also seen is a much more confident player. Not gripping his stick tight (old hockey cliche), Pulock has used his deadly slap shot more and he’s beginning to hit the net with consistency after not having that same success for most of the year. His game defensively continues to be on the upswing.
— Eyes on Isles (@eyesonislesFS) February 24, 2019
6. The forwards are not shooting enough. This trend could go hand and hand with my third thought (above). The Isles have played strong enough defensively that they should be able to play more in the opposing teams’ end. The tendency of not shooting has cost them points. Another thing contributing to the trend is the Islanders forwards making too many passes. Let us take a look at the numbers though in the last four games where the problem has occurred: Tuesday against Calgary (Five shots in the first period), last Saturday in Vancouver (Three shots in the second period), ten shots combined through the last 40 minutes in Edmonton and seven shots through two periods in a 4-2 defeat in Calgary. Those numbers are completely unacceptable. It needs to change and fast. That type of offense will only make it more difficult to win games down the stretch and in the postseason.
7. Nick Leddy should be taken off the first power play unit. Watching how Pulock and Devon Toews quarterback the man-advantage in recent weeks proves that Leddy’s time on the first unit needs to be done. Leddy is a solid puck mover, but quite often — over the course of the whole year — is still hesitant to shoot. Pulock and Toews have shown that willingness to do the opposite. All season, the power play needing to be revitalized has been beaten to a pulp. Now is the time to make the move, especially with the playoffs right around the corner.
8. Having mixed feelings about the deadline, nothing wrong with either side. You don’t need to be around Islander fans long to understand why the trade deadline always comes with some beleaguered expressions. This past deadline had a different feel to it though. Lou did his due diligence on both Duchene and Stone but wasn’t willing to mortgage the future for a quick fix. I understand why people can be upset about that too. If either one of them was acquired, they would have been a big-time upgrade to the offense. They are not one piece away though from being a Cup contender though. How I see it? This was the first deadline the Islanders weren’t being run by Mike Milbury or Garth Snow since 1996 and they don’t come away any worse for the wear.
9. Give Andrew Ladd and Thomas Hickey another game or two to shake off the rust. It was great to see both guys back in the lineup Tuesday night and yes, each exhibited they are getting back to game speed. Lamoriello said that both coming back was similar to making an acquisition at the deadline. We will see if they end up being that. But critiquing them after they get three or four games under their belt is the better way to look at the situation.
10. Keyword: Foundation. Because the Islanders have overachieved this season, this word seems to have taken a backseat of sorts. Then Lamoriello uttered it again after explaining why the club decided to not make a move at the deadline. The term around these parts needs to be remembered more often as the Islanders move forward in the Lou era. Besides, should we be reminded of the last time the Islanders were building a foundation? It was before they became an NHL powerhouse and dynasty in the 1980s.