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New York Islanders 2017-’18 Season Preview

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New York Islanders

41-29-12, 94 points, 5th in the Metropolitan Division

Additions: RW Jordan Eberle, G Kristers Gudlevskis, D Seth Helgeson

Subtractions: LW Eric Boulton, LW Justin Florek, C Ben Holmstrom, C Ryan Strome, C Carter Verhaeghe

Offseason Analysis: Just as I was starting to think that Jordan Eberle trade rumors, much like the Loch Ness Monster and the state of North Dakota, were nothing but myths and stories, Garth Snow just waltzes right in and ruins all the fun.

The ever-entertaining (probably more-so for those of us without vested interest in the team) Isles GM can usually be counted on to make headlines somehow, so when he pulled the trigger on one of the offseason’s bigger moves just over a week before free agency, it raised quite a few hands in the peanut gallery. On top of the sheer rarity of a true 1-for-1 straight-up trade, a few questioned the move based on the Isles’ lack of quality depth at the center position and Strome’s potentially yet-untouched ceiling. But Snow seemed confident enough in young Brock Nelson‘s ability to anchor his second line to go ahead and finally try to acquire the extra firepower of Eberle to accompany world-class John Tavares on the top line.

Captain ‘Johnny T’ has been one of the best centers in the league for quite some time, and at just shy of 27 years of age, he certainly shouldn’t be slowing down any time soon. But year after year seemingly everyone around the league asks “When will they find him a legitimate top-flight winger?”. Well, I think it’s safe to say they’re as close now as they’ve ever been. Eberle brings serious skill and consistent 25-30 goal, 60-70 point production from a situation where he didn’t often play on a quality hockey team. Should the two find solid chemistry, they could easily be plastering opposing defenders on the receiving end of highlight-reel plays on a nightly basis.

The rest of the Isles forward corps is solid, if not spectacular.

A solid ’16-’17 season showed they should now be able to comfortably rely upon man-child Anders Lee to complete the top line and chip in ballpark 30 goals and 50 points. The 6’3″ 228lb Notre Dame grad adds a helpful heaping of size and physicality to the group, and should create plenty of time, space, and netfront havoc to give his ultra-talented linemates ample opportunity to set things up.

Things get a bit convoluted from there.

Brock Nelson will almost certainly center the second line, and while veteran Andrew Ladd would be a logical choice to fill the left wing position, young Anthony Beauvillier will be given every chance to supplement Ladd after a quiet but solid debut season in ’16-’17. The former Shawinigan Cataractes superstar chipped in 9 goals and 24 points in 66 games last year playing limited minutes and getting adjusted to the pro game. Now with a firm idea of the competition he’ll face, and a summer of NHL-caliber weightroom training, Beauvillier should make a strong case for an expanded role in ’17-’18.

The right side could very well go the way of another youngster in Joshua Ho-Sang. After impressing with 10 points in his first 21 NHL games last season, some immature behavior landed the former OHL standout in Bridgeport for the remainder of the year. As long as he can keep his head on straight, Ho-Sang could fill out a sneaky-dangerous second unit for the Islanders.

If we go ahead and slot Beauvillier into the 2nd line LW position (and we are, because this is my article and I get to do what I want) then that leaves a likely 3rd line of Ladd, Casey Cizikas, and Josh Bailey, all of whom can play in just about any situation, while the latter two are both natural centers, giving the line extra flexibility in the faceoff department.

The fourth line also seems a fairly sure thing, with fleet-footed Jason Chimera accompanying the versatile Alan Quine and human battering ram Cal Clutterbuck. I have Nikolai Kulemin and Stephen Gionta as the extra forwards, giving the Isles a bit of extra veteran versatility to inject when needed. The forward prospect pool isn’t terrifically deep, but does feature the likes of respective 2014 & 2015 1st round picks Michael Dal Colle and Mathew Barzal. I expect Barzal to be left in Bridgeport to get a year of pro hockey under his belt, but a strong camp from 6’3″ 200lb Dal Colle could potentially earn him a spot in the opening night lineup.

Moving back to the blueline, the unit looks to be completely unchanged from the ’16-’17 campaign. Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk are set to anchor the top pairing once again, while Adam Pelech and Calvin de Haan, both fresh off of shiny new contracts, will likely fill the 3-4 slots. After impressing the Islanders’ brass enough in the World Cup to be offered a contract last year, German defender Dennis Seidenberg did not let them down and was given an extension through the upcoming season, once again looking to accompany Thomas Hickey on the 3rd pairing.

Ryan Pulock should nab the 7th defenseman slot, with the potential to supplement one of the top 6 should he have a solid camp (his right-handed shot benefits him on a New York depth chart littered with lefties) but will face plenty of competition from guys like bruising Scott Mayfield and former OHL offensive dynamo and Memorial Cup Champion Mitchell Vande Sompel (who I promise is not on this list simply because his name is fun to say).

In goal, we reach the bulk of the questions surrounding the Islanders chances this year. After a quite literally up-and-down season that saw him placed on waivers and eventually sent to AHL Bridgeport, Halak returned to the Isles after going 17-7-3 and rode that confidence to a solid 12-9-5 record in the NHL. Now, at age 32 and in the final year of his contract, the Slovakian goaltender must reclaim his previous form to both help his team and, likely, extend his career as a starter. The Islanders do have the luxury of career-backup turned solid performer Thomas Greiss, who stepped in and filled Halak’s duties admirably with a 26-18-5 record accompanying a 2.69 GAA and .913 SV% last year. Behind Greiss are solid AHLers Kristers Gudlevskis and Christopher Gibson, though neither currently projects as an NHL regular.

Basically, the short version of the goaltending situation (and potentially the Islanders season as a whole) reads as ‘Halak or bust’.

Offseason Grade: C

Snow accomplished what he’s been trying to accomplish for quite a few years in giving Tavares a legitimate top-tier linemate, but Eberle’s pricey contract may have limited his ability to go out and solidify the rest of his lineup (*cough* Matt Duchene *cough*). The top line will likely rely upon the young second unit to take some defensive pressure away, and should the youngsters faulter, it could cause serious offensive problems for the top-loaded Isles. Throw in a good-not-great D corps, and a shaky goaltending situation, and the Islanders could struggle mightily to make the postseason in a deadly-good Metropolitan Division.

March 25 – Day 157 – Seeing circles

A dozen games are on the schedule today, so let’s hop right in with our list!

A pair of games (Vancouver at Minnesota and Philadelphia at Columbus [NHLN/SN1]) get the action underway at 2 p.m., followed by seven (Calgary at St. Louis [CITY], Toronto at Buffalo [CBC], Ottawa at Montréal [SN/TVAS], Chicago at Florida [NHLN], Carolina at New Jersey, Boston at the New York Islanders and Arizona at Washington) at the usual 7 p.m. starting time. San Jose at Nashville drops the puck an hour later, followed by Colorado at Edmonton (CBC/SN) at 10 p.m. Finally, the New York Rangers at Los Angeles – tonight’s nightcap – drops the puck at 10:30 p.m. to close out the day’s action. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Toronto at Buffalo: Only two more editions of the Battle of the QEW go down this season, and one is tonight.
  • Ottawa at Montréal: Speaking of rivalries, this one is kind of important since it could determine who raises an Atlantic Division banner.
  • Chicago at Florida: For five seasons, Brian Campbell was a member of the Panthers‘ blueline. This offseason, he decided to return to the Windy City.
  • Boston at New York: These clubs are currently tied for the second wildcard, but they won’t be after tonight.
  • San Jose at Nashville: Remember last year’s Western Semifinals? The Predators would probably like to exact some revenge tonight.

Since both the Canadiens and Senators are all but locks to for this year’s postseason, let’s head back to Brooklyn with the Islanders for their wildly important matchup with Boston.

 

The 38-30-6 Bruins have been in the playoff picture – or right outside it – for almost the entire season. A mistimed four-game losing skid (then again, when does a four-game losing skid ever come at an appropriate time?) has felled them to the second of those two categories.

Of course, this is not the first position Boston has lost in the last month. For a long while, the Bruins actually had command of third place in the Atlantic Division, but they ceded that too to a Maple Leafs team that has won seven of its last 10 games.

The main reason for this fall from grace? I’d argue sub-par play in net by 33-20-4 Tuukka Rask. He’s been in net for all four of these contests, and the Bruins have allowed an average of five goals against. In fact, his .842 save percentage and 4.53 GAA from March 16 through last night’s action is the fifth and second-worst efforts in the NHL, respectively, in that time span.

“But Rask is a great goaltender!” said Bruins fans.

And I agree; yes, he is great. He’s also no spring chicken anymore. Rask just celebrated his 30th birthday not too long ago, which makes him older than the average goaltender throughout the 2000s (per Quant Hockey), whether by mean (28.81) or median (28.3).

Whether you’re in the camp of believing Bruce Cassidy needs to play 5-5-1 Anton Khudobin more often or Don Sweeney needs to provide a better backup than a nearly 31-year-old Russian is inconsequential to the fact that Rask needs more breaks. With 59 starts, Rask has played the third-most games in a NHL crease this season, and the other two goalies with more starts are younger than him (though not by much in Cam Talbot‘s case).

Making the exhausted netminder’s demise even more troublesome is that the defense playing in front of him is one of the better – and improving – corps in the league. Over this sour stretch, they’ve allowed only 117 shots to reach his net (29.25 per game), which is barely worse than their 25.6 average allowed per game for the entire season that ranks second-best in the league.

He doesn’t wear the Bruins‘ “C” for nothing. Captain Zdeno Chara has been at the forefront of that effort with his team-leading 124 shot blocks, followed closely behind by Adam McQuaid‘s 122. Center Patrice Bergeron has also been very impressive on the defensive front, as his 59 takeaways are second-most on the club. Brad Marchand has one more for the squad lead, but he also tops (Or would it be bottoms?) the team in the opposite statistic with his 74 turnovers.

When looking at the season as a whole, Boston usually finds more than enough success on the penalty kill, as their 84.5% kill rate is sixth-best in the league. Of course, this rough patch hasn’t been so kind. The Bruins have allowed seven power play goals against (you guessed it, most in the league in this time-span) for a measly 63.1% kill rate.

One thing that has gone Boston‘s way over the past 10 days has been their power play. Co-led by Torey Krug and Ryan Spooner‘s three man-advantage points, as well as David Krejci and David Pastrnak‘s two man-advantage goals, the Bruins have scored on 35.7% of their opponents’ penalties – the best mark in the league in that span. That’s not exactly a surprise though. Boston has been successful on 21.2% of their power plays all year, the eighth-best rate in the league.

First it was the Leafs taking advantage of the Bruins‘ fall from grace. Now it’s the 35-26-12 Islanders, a team riding a two-game winning streak.

This success is a far cry from where New York was before Doug Weight took command of the ship. Former head coach Jack Capuano had only managed a 17-17-8 record – the worst mark in the Eastern Conference. But since then, the Isles have gone on an 18-9-4 run to climb back into the eighth place in the East. In fact, that’s the fifth-best record in the league since Capuano’s firing, better even than teams like Columbus and Nashville.

The main reason for that improvement is New York‘s potent offense. The Islanders have buried 96 goals under Weight, which ties for the fourth-highest total in the league since January 17. Behind that effort is none other than John Tavares, who’s registered 32 of his 64 points on the campaign. Anders Lee also came alive, as he’s registered 13 goals to lead the team during the Weight-era.

Ready to be even more impressed by the Islanders‘ resurgent offense? They do it almost exclusively at even-strength. In fact, New York‘s power play is borderline atrocious, as they only convert 15.8% of their opportunities – the fifth-worst rate in the league.

If recent history is any indicator, it looks like the Bruins are on their way to their fifth-straight loss, as they have yet to beat New York this year in their previous two meetings. The last time these clubs ran into each other was January 16 in Boston. Between Nikolai Kulemin‘s two-goal night (one-sixth of his season total!) and Thomas Greiss‘ 32-save shutout, the Islanders walked out of the TD Garden with a 4-0 victory.

Ironically, that was Capuano’s last game as head coach of the Isles. My, how the story has come full circle.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Boston‘s Marchand (37 goals [third-most in the NHL] for 80 points [fourth-most in the league]) and Rask (six shutouts [tied for fourth-most in the NHL] among 33 wins [tied for fifth-most in the league]) & New York‘s Josh Bailey (38 assists [leads the team]) and Cal Clutterbuck (199 hits [leads the team]).

Though they might be a little tired from their shootout victory in Pittsburgh last night, I’m inclined to pick the Islanders right now. Something tells me that only one day off is not enough for Rask, and everything seems to be going New York‘s way right now.

Hockey Birthday

  • Ken Wregget (1964-) – Toronto selected this goaltender 45th-overall in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft, but he spent most of his career with the Penguins. By the time his career was through, he’d earned a 225-248-53 record and hoisted the 1992 Stanley Cup.
  • Ladislav Benysek (1975-) – This defensemen was selected in the 11th round by Edmonton in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, but he spent most of his four-year career in the league with Minnesota. Over 161 games in the NHL, he accumulated only 15 points for a -28 rating.

With their 4-3 shootout victory against Pittsburgh in the DtFR Game of the Day, the Islanders have improved to the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

With six goals in regulation, you’d figure there’d be two a period, right? Not last night. Instead, five were struck in the second frame, and another in the third.

The scoring started 1:54 after beginning the second period when Third Star of the Game Cameron Gaunce (Matt Cullen and Phil Kessel) buried a slap shot for the second goal of his career. 2:54 later, Second Star Brock Nelson (Joshua Ho-Sang and Alan Quine) tied the game at one-all, the score that held until Lee (Bailey and First Star Tavares) scored a wrist shot to give New York the lead 4:30 later. Now it was Pittsburgh‘s turn to pull even, and Sidney Crosby (Chad Ruhwedel and Conor Sheary) was up to the task with 6:19 remaining in the frame. With five seconds remaining before the second intermission, Casey Cizikas (Tavares) found the back of the net to send the Isles to the dressing room with a 3-2 lead.

After all that action, the final goal of regulation wasn’t struck until 6:10 remained in regulation. Cullen (Gaunce and Kessel) scored his wrister to tie the game at three-all, the score that held through the remainder of regulation and the five minute three-on-three overtime period.

Looks like this one will have to be decided in the shootout. The Pens elected to go second…

  1. …meaning Anthony Beauvillier was up first. He scored on Marc-Andre Fleury, giving New York an early shootout lead.
  2. Kessel had the chance to tie the shootout, but Jaroslav Halak was up to the task and made the save.
  3. Weight called Tavares’ number next as if he knew the captain would score him another goal. With a 2-0 shootout lead, the Pens were in a miss-and-lose situation.
  4. Speaking of captains, that’s exactly who took Pittsburgh‘s next shootout attempt. Crosby had better luck than Kessel and scored his shot to keep the Penguins alive.
  5. Andrew Ladd took what proved to be the Islanders‘ final shootout attempt, but was unable to beat Fleury to win the game.
  6. Instead, Halak provided the victory by saving Nick Bonino‘s shot.

Halak saved 37-of-40 shots faced (92.5%) for the victory, leaving the shootout loss to Fleury after he stopped 43-of-46 (93.5%).

It was the second-straight DtFR Game of the Day to be decided by shootout, but the fact that this one was decided by the 80-56-23 visitors gives them a one-point advantage over the road teams in the series.