The New York Islanders have completed a disappointing 2013-14 season with a road victory over the Buffalo Sabres in what truly defined their season as a whole. Road warriors once again with a mind-boggling below .500 home record and another November/December swoon dooming them to another summer of not being able to take part in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
As we take a look back at what transpired, we are reminded that nothing ever comes easy in the National Hockey League. With New York coming off their first playoff appearance since what seemed like the last time our government was actually responsible, the Islanders proceeded to take what could only be described as a step backwards.
What they are left with is possibly the most important summer in the span of the entire rebuild, which now enters its ninth year since the front office was tasked with piecing back together an entire neighborhood and not just a house which was decimated by previous fumbling and mismanagement.
As dark as the clouds seem to be and as dangerously seductive Lady Karma is at times when it comes to this franchise, things were not all bad. There were plenty of bright spots with young kids being given an opportunity to show what they could do at the NHL level after a rash of injuries left the team more closely resembling their American Hockey League counterpart at the tail end of the year.
First, let’s review the numbers which paint an ugly picture of a year gone wrong.
2009-10 34-37-11 79 pts (48% of possible points)
2010-11 30-39-13 73 pts (45% of possible points)
2011-12 34-37-11 79 pts (48% of possible points)
2012-13 24-17-7 55 pts (57% of possible points)
2013-14 34-37-11 79 pts (48% of possible points)
Remarkably consistent no? That is not a misprint. The Islanders have finished with the same record 3 of the past 5 years capturing 48% of all possible points given out by NHL standings. The team is not trending remarkably downwards, rather seems to be spinning its wheels looking for traction on a rain covered muddy patch of NHL road.
Home : 13-19-9
Road : 21-18-2
Goals per game : 2.6 (17th)
Goals against : 3.2 (28th)
Power Play : 17.8 (17th)
Penalty Kill : 78.1 (29th)
Corsi : 50.0 % (19th)
Fenwick : 49.9% (19th)
Save % : 89.4% (30th)
Faceoffs : 47.2% (26th)
As you can see, even though Corsi and Fenwick puck possession metrics are almost at league average (50%) the Islanders were in the bottom half of the league in every single major category as it relates to how they performed as a team comparative to their opponents. With the worst save percentage in the league and second worst penalty kill compounded by being 26th in faceoffs, its not hard to see why New York is missing out again this year on the post-season.
Goals : Kyle Okposo, 27
Assists : Okposo / John Tavares, 42
Points : Okposo, 69
+/- : Thomas Hickey, +5
PIM : Matt Carkner, 149
Shots : Okposo, 195
Shooting % : Frans Nielsen, 15%
Faceoffs : Nielsen 49.3%
Coming into the season, the Islanders offense was thought to be the strength of this club, the one thing you could most definitely count on and not have to worry about.
But to look at the month by month goals per game averages, you can see the drop-off in secondary scoring really hurt the team during its annual slump.
After opening the season strong averaging 3 goals per game, November and December fell to 2.2 and 2.4. When you have the worst save percentage in the entire league, those totals are not going to win you many hockey games. Later in the season can be directly attributed to the season ending plethora of injuries to captain John Tavares, leading scorer Kyle Okposo and speedster Michael Grabner.
Tavares was once again the anchorman, leading the team in every offensive category before being hurt at the Sochii Olympic games playing for team Canada. Still taking home a gold medal for his efforts, the Islanders unquestioned leader says his rehabilitation is going extremely well and he expects to begin skating on his own next week with no off-ice limitations.
After the playoffs last season, Kyle Okposo seemed to figure out what kind of player he needed to be. He came into the 2013-14 campaign re-focused after an intense summer of workouts. It paid dividends for the new proud father as he shattered career highs in every offensive statistic and lead the young team with his inspired play every night.
And how can you not mention Frans Nielsen? The Islanders handyman does everything the club asks of him and more. Not taking away at all from his defensive responsibilities and being matched against the opposing team’s best forwards, Nielsen led by example and set a career high with 25 goals. He could be the forward New York can least afford to lose, even before Tavares.
On the flip side of the coin are the disappointments of many Islanders forwards counted on to make big contributions. Josh Bailey, fresh off a new contract extension, could never get on track and lost confidence by the bunches towards mid-season. Even though he finished with a career high 38 points, 8 goals in 77 games is hardly anything to inspire confidence. 10 points over his last 9 games with the pressure off padded Bailey’s season totals.
Grabner, who the Islanders need to get back to his 30 goal ways, scored only 12 in 64, which included a massive drought of more than 30 without a tally. More troubling is that he continued to show a case of the ‘yips’ when it comes to converting on potential game-changing breakaway opportunities.
As far as the young guns are concerned, they performed very admirably with super rookie Ryan Strome collecting 7-11-18 in 37 games including 8 points over his last 11 games and Anders Lee proving his goal scoring might not be a fluke at all as he potted 9 in just 22 contests. Brock Nelson could be the next great Islanders two way center, doing much more than he was likely originally asked to while chipping in with 14 goals and 26 points.
Brett Gallant and Justin Johnson are ready to take the mantle from Matt Carkner and Eric Boulton as the teams primary antagonists and Gallant especially is not afraid to throw with heavyweights, despite his 6′, 190 lbs frame.
A defense that was so good the year before in protecting the crease and blocking shots during the Islanders run to the playoffs could not recover from the off-season losses of captain Mark Streit to the Philadelphia Flyers and Lubomir Visnovsky to the injury ninja.
When Visnovsky took a seemingly innocent looking hit to the right of Evgeni Nabokov in an early season tilt against the Carolina Hurricanes, so went the Islanders transition game and power play. Nobody could have realistically expected the concussion to sideline him an incredible 58 games.
The downstream effect of that was Andrew MacDonald having to do much more than his skill set would allow, playing over an average of 25 minutes a night before being traded to the Flyers the day before the deadline for 2 draft choices (MacDonald has since signed a 6 year/30mm extension with Mr.Monopoly).
Travis Hamonic suffered at times in his own end, backing in when he should have stepped up, and allowing opposing forwards way too much room once they gained the Islanders blueline.
Thomas Hickey was the only Islander to play all 82 games and the only positive player with a minimum 25 games played. Incredible season for the diminutive defenseman left on the scrap heap. His puck moving ability showed and he is not at all intimidated going into the corners and getting his nose dirty.
From there it was all about the rookies gaining valuable experience. It is a widely known fact that blue-liners take so much longer to develop at the professional level than forwards and many times the mistakes made by the kids showed. But at the end of the day, no game is worthless and meaningless when adapting from the AHL to the NHL.
Calvin de Haan played 51 games and was calm, cool and collected. It’s almost as if he was here already in a previous life. Matt Donovan appeared in 52 games and showed a gambler’s mentality that was missing when Visnovsky went down. He was the only true offensive mind from the back line late in the season and played his best hockey in January when paired with Bridgeport partner de Haan.
The story for the 2014-15 season, depending on summer signings, will be youth once again. Griffin Reinhart is expected to be an almost sure-bet to make the team and Ryan Pulock has joined the Sound Tigers for their last 3 games of the regular season.
In finality, the defense did not do themselves any favors but were young and learning ‘on the job’, which is an almost impossible task given the quality of forwards and lack of obstruction allowed on forechecking. There was no real veteran leadership to show the kids ‘the way’ and none of the Islanders forwards helped at all, especially in the season’s first three months.
Evgeni Nabokov was signed to a one year deal upon the commencement of free agency after Garth Snow realized he could not snag any of the available free agents and struck out at the draft in acquiring Cory Schneider, who would go to the New Jersey Devils.
Nabokov was brilliant in the stretch run leading to the playoffs in 2013, but faltered in the first round matchup against the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins.
This season, he missed significant time with groin injuries and played his part in the Islanders having the lowest save percentage of all 30 NHL teams. Perhaps it’s age finally catching up to him or the fact that the two goaltenders counted on to keep him fresh did not do an adequate job either.
At the end of the day, logic says there will be no playoffs in this team’s future as long as they maintain the status quo between the pipes. Kevin Poulin was heavily counted on to come in and be the future, protecting Nabokov from having to play too many games and taking the torch forward. That did not work out well at all, as Poulin consistently overplayed his angles and gave up juicy rebounds to the point where it earned him a trip back to Bridgeport to finish out the season. Safe money is on him not being resigned this summer.
Anders Nilsson showed a little more promise and is an absolutely beastly specimen. After not playing much hockey over the course of the last three years due to a mysterious but now solved vitamin deficiency, he could use a full year with the Sound Tigers to sharpen his skills before a final determination could be fairly made.
Nabokov is such a great presence in the locker room that all signs point to him being back on another one year deal, albeit to back-up whoever Snow can acquire this off-season to be the long-term starter. Needless to say, this has to be priority one for New York above anything else. If it’s not, the last season at Nassau Coliseum will be a long and painful one yet again.
Jack Capuano was on hand in Uniondale on Monday, conducting exit interviews with his players before their availability to the media. That generally means a stay of execution and that is just what he received later in the day when it was announced he would return as the Islanders bench boss to start the 2014 season.
Whether this is a referendum on Snow failing to get him the proper pieces needed in the summer to adequately compete and taking the blame and accountability on himself or an excuse from all the injuries suffered to the front and back lines, Capuano should be on a shorter leash to get this team over the hump that seems to plague them every season.
There have been logical questions about Capuano’s game management and line combinations but unless you have been in his shoes (and let’s be completely honest, all of us here have not) there is no way to fairly call for his job to be terminated. Everyone can have their opinion and it’s worth while to listen and respect all those who strongly do on this topic, but none of us can truly say how good or bad of a job he has done. The team hardly quit down the stretch when they easily could have to secure a better draft slot.
Personally, whether I believe in the vote of confidence given yesterday by Snow or not, as long as the pieces are acquired this summer and a team put on the ice to compete for 82 games is before him, at that time will it all be on Capuano to produce or be on the unemployment line.
One thing is for certain. He has not lost the locker room as mostly all players who addressed the media yesterday went out of their way to praise Capuano and his style. But as history as taught us, the only thing that translates and resonates with fans and ownership is wins and losses. That will ultimately decide Capuano’s fate in 2014-15.
Let’s get a healthy, reasonable debate going in the comments section below. Let me know what you think of the Islanders 2013-14 season and if there is any reason for you to be optimistic moving ahead. Thanks as always for reading Islanders Insight.