Thursday, December 29, 2011

Myths, Facts and Solutions: How to Fix the Broken Islanders


It's no secret that the New York Islanders have not been having a good season. The Isles have just 11 wins and find themselves at the bottom of both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference. They were, in theory, supposed to take a step forward this year and, to this point, have simply failed to do so.

The obvious question is: What the hell happened?

Many of you have already formulated your own conclusions regarding what's gone wrong and, going forward, what needs to be done. Some of these are more realistic and practical than others, but at the end of the day, we all want the same thing, which is for this team to be competitive and successful.

I have my own thesis on why the Islanders are in such a predicament, and I'm going to analyze the evidence and determine who's really to blame and what the next steps are. So here goes...


MYTH #1: GARTH SNOW IS A TERRIBLE GM AND THE REASON WHY THE  ISLANDERS ARE LOSING

When the Isles first hired Snow to be their new GM, my eyebrows were raised so high up, I was worried they'd jump off my face. The fact is, he's made a lot of good moves over the course of his tenure at the helm.

If not for Garth, this team would not have made the playoffs in 2006-07. Ted Nolan was a huge part of that too, and he was hired by Neil Smith, but unless Snow makes the trades for Marc-Andre Bergeron, Richard Zednik and Ryan Smyth, the Isles don't sneak into the top-eight.

As far as his draft-day performances are concerned, you can definitely say that "anyone would've drafted John Tavares." I won't disagree.

But would "anyone" have drafted Travis Hamonic, Kevin Poulin, Matt Donavan, Casey Cizikas, Aaron Ness, Calvin de Haan, Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Strome (among others)? Give Snow credit where it's due; he's done a nice job drafting good young talent.

How about the fact that he signed Mark Streit to an absolute bargain while, simultaneously, the Rangers thought they were getting the better defenseman when they vastly overpaid Wade Redden?

It's also hard to argue with his knack for finding talent in places no one else tends to. Matt Moulson, P.A. Parenteau Al Montoya and, to an extent, Michael Grabner, were all relatively-unheralded acquisitions. They are now four of the Isles' most important puzzle pieces.

And how quickly people forget that he was able to convince the Ottawa Senators to fork over a first round pick for perennial underachiever Chris Campoli. How many GMs would be able to pull that off? Not many.

Snow got a solid young defender (Ty Wishart) in exchange for goaltender Dwayne Roloson when we were all but convinced that the most he'd be able to fetch is a fourth, maybe a third rounder for the aging netminder.

He turned James Wisniewski, a productive but defensively-inept defenseman, into second and fifth round picks after initially trading a third-rounder to acquire him.

I also don't blame him for bringing back Jack Capuano. Just about any GM would've done the same thing. After all, the Isles were one of the better teams in hockey during the second half of last season. Why mess with something that, at the time, had been working?

As much as you may believe otherwise, Garth Snow isn't the problem.

Before you criticize his free agency moves (or, in the eyes of many, his general lack thereof), keep in mind that the Islanders have this disastrous arena situation. You try convincing a free agent to commit to a team that doesn't know where it'll be playing its home games in 2015. It's not going to go over very well, guaranteed.

And don't blame Snow for Rick DiPietro's 15-year contract. That was a Charles Wang production, through and through. GMs sign certain players to long-term deals. Some owners take that concept to a whole other level (see Jeff Vanderbeek, Ilya Kovalchuk).

I'm not saying he hasn't made any mistakes; all GMs do every now and then and Snow's no exception.

Having said that, when you add everything up, Snow has made more good moves than bad ones. His job here is not finished, the current roster doesn't resemble the finished on-ice product. The Islanders don't have the luxury of acquiring higher-profile free agents to accelerate this rebuild, which is going to make this process drag out a bit longer than most of you would like.

Ultimately, to ignore everything he's done to, at the very least, set this team up for future success is just absolutely ludicrous. Garth Snow shouldn't and doesn't need to be fired, and I think letting him go would be a huge judgmental lapse on the Islanders' part.


MYTH #2: THE ISLANDERS COULD WIN WITH A DIFFERENT COACH

Please do not misunderstand me: I am not vouching for Jack Capuano.

He definitely bears significant responsibility for what has transpired this season. However, it is not his presence behind the bench that makes or breaks this team.

Capuano shouldn't be fired because the Isles are losing hockey games. He should be fired because he simply does not have the proper intuition to coach at the NHL level.

Do I think an improved Islander team cannot win at all under Jack Capuano? No, I don't. But make no mistake: The Isles won't reach their full potential and become the team we know they're capable of being without a more experienced and savvy bench boss.

Capuano's inexplicable tendency to pull his goaltender with nearly three minutes to go in the third period is the least of what ticks me off about him. It's not even necessarily some of his moronic lineup decisions (ex: placing Nino Niederreiter on the fourth line) that merit his dismissal.

What bothers me, more than anything else, is his insufficient understanding of what it means to hold players accountable. There's no middle ground; Capuano either goes to an extreme or stands pat.

Kyle Okposo started the season on the wrong foot and Capuano's response was to scratch him for not one, not two, but THREE games, which was absolute overkill. If Jack wanted to send a message, there was a way to do it without effecting this team negatively.

Meanwhile, Mike Mottau can turn over the puck four times in a two minute span but he'll still be out on the ice for his next shift.

You have to hold your players accountable, because if you don't, they'll likely continue to make the same mistakes. Jack Capuano is just not doing that, and therefore, the Islanders simply aren't giving 110% and always find themselves waking up too late in hockey games.

If you don't skate for 60 minutes a night, you're not going to win. If you're not a disciplined team, you're probably not going to skate for 60 minutes a night.

His lack of emotion is another thing that irks me. You know you've got a problem when the assistant coach (Doug Weight) has to start screaming his head off at the referees, because of a horrendous penalty call on John Tavares and because he knows Capuano's not going to. Even worse, Cappy should've been just as (if not more) pissed off than Weight and instead he tells him to calm down! When you don't show much passion how do you expect your players to?

After a 6-0 loss at home to the Boston Bruins, an irate Capuano nearly foamed at the mouth during his postgame press conference. That's something that, given the way this team's played this season, should not have only occurred once.

The Islanders need to get rid of Jack Capuano because, while he's not the only reason the team's losing, he's not helping, either.


MYTH #3: THE ISLANDERS DON'T WIN BECAUSE TREVOR GILLIES IS IN BRIDGEPORT AND ZENON KONOPKA'S IN OTTAWA


While Gillies and/or Konopka would provide more heart and finish their checks (in the five minutes or so of playing time they actually receive), and while you absolutely need those kind of players on your team, they're not going to be the difference between whether or not the Islanders win games.

They have roles that are important but limited. These guys will drop the gloves and fight but won't necessarily score or shut down the opposition.

And the fact is, Matt Martin, Tim Wallace and Micheal Haley are in the lineup and their presence hasn't exactly inspired the Isles to win.

Most hockey teams have a couple (and generally no more than three) of these "energy" players. The Islanders have a few too, and while yes, Zenon Konopka was far more effective than Marty Reasoner (who's turned out to be a complete flop), his absence is not an excuse for the team's subpar performance.

There are players in that Islander locker room that have that desire to compete at a higher level burning within. It's time for them to fill the void, something they're fully capable of doing. Konopka did the Isles a great service by inspiring a lot of confidence and swagger, but he's not the only player who can do that.


MYTH #4: THE ISLANDERS DON'T WIN BECAUSE THERE'S NO OFFENSIVE FIREPOWER


What I'm about to say may shock you, considering the fact that the Isles are dead-last in the NHL in virtually every offensive statistical category: This team certainly has its problems, but offense isn't one of them.

How can I possibly suggest such a thing? Because I have a different opinion as to why the Isles don't score and it has less to do with how the team plays with the puck, more with how they play without it.

It's important to distinguish between a lack of offense stemming from a lack of personnel and a lack of offense stemming from a lack of puck-possession.

If you've watched the Islanders this season, you've probably noticed that, more often than not, this team spends a significant amount of time in their own zone. This is because they're not a good defensive hockey club.

When you can't clear the puck out of the zone and you're constantly hemmed in, it's pretty difficult to generate offense. It also takes a few rushes to establish a rhythm and because the Islanders' scoring chances are usually few and far between, they're never able to do that.

If the defense (and I'd say a handful of forwards as well) did a better job taking away passing and shooting lanes and clearing the puck, the Isles would have more chances to rush up the ice and create scoring opportunities. If that were to happen, they'd put pucks in the net far more often than they are right now.

No one's going to confuse the New York Islanders with the Chicago Blackhawks,  but they're certainly capable of producing plenty of offense and far more than they have to this point.

They have a premier playmaker and sniper (yes, I'll go that far) in John Tavares, a speeding bullet in Michael Grabner and the quintessential supporting-cast member in P.A. Parenteau. They have guys who are willing to get to the dirty areas in front of the net like Matt Moulson and, when he's on his game, Kyle Okposo. They have a budding Nino Niederreiter, who has a potentially-lethal combination of size and scoring ability.

Even on the blueline, the Isles pack some scoring punch. Mark Streit, for all of his defensive mishaps this year, is on pace for 42 points by season's end (not bad, considering he's 34-years-old and plays for a team that hasn't scored much) and can be productive on the powerplay.

Travis Hamonic is known more for his shutdown ability, but too has offensive instincts. Milan Jurcina's slap shot is one of the fastest (though, unfortunately, one of the most inaccurate) in the league. Andrew MacDonald can also chip in and has lit the lamp on a few occasions this season.

This Islander team may not be scoring as much, but that doesn't mean they lack the firepower to do so.


MYTH #5: THE ISLANDERS ARE LOSING BECAUSE BRIAN ROLSTON AND JAY PANDOLFO HAVEN'T PANNED OUT 


If you consider the fact that Brian Rolston and Jay Pandolfo weren't necessarily brought here for the reasons you might be thinking of, the idea that neither player has met his expectations becomes an illogical one. 

With the amount of young talent surrounding them, Rolston and Pandolfo shouldn't be slowing the Islanders down. It's certainly not unusual for a rebuilding team to infuse some veteran leadership, as we've seen with Chicago (John Madden), Washington (Sergei Fedorov, Mike Knuble), Pittsburgh (Bill Guerin) and, most recently, Edmonton (Ryan Smyth).

Brian Rolston isn't here to rack up 60 points the way he once could.

He's here to teach these youngsters (mainly from experience at this stage) a thing or two about what it takes to excel in the National Hockey League. He's here because the Islanders are hoping that, when he reaches his potential, Kyle Okposo will be the kind of power forward and powerplay QB that Rolston was throughout his career.

Brian Rolston is here because he's succeeded at every level, winning an NCAA National Championship, a Stanley Cup (NJ Devils, 1991) and an Olympic silver medal (USA, 2002).

He knows what it takes to win and, though he can't quite practice what he preaches at age 38, his contributions will have a lasting impact on this young Islanders squad.

Fellow ex-Devil Jay Pandolfo is here for a couple of specific reasons. Like Rolston, Pandolfo's supposed to be a veteran presence, but it's his penalty killing and the fact that he does all the little (but important) things that have kept him in the lineup until a recent injury took him out of it.

Granted, Pandolfo's skating is mediocre at best and no one's going to mistake him for Pavel Datsyuk. But that does not mean there's nothing he brings to the table. The Isles simply have not been as strong on the PK since he went down with that injury and, while Pandolfo's made a handful of errors this season, he has come up big several times as well.

Just because a player is aging and can't do all the things you'd like to expect from him, does not mean that player has no value whatsoever. All young teams need direction, the Islanders being no exception. Brian Rolston and Jay Pandolfo are here to give them some.

Trust me, you'll thank them when the Isles finally become a competitive hockey club. The knowledge and experience they're imparting on these kids will go a long way and, though it's hard to see right now, has already started to have an effect.


THE SOLUTION:


If the Islanders can acquire a couple of bona-fide, top-four defensemen, they will be a very good hockey team.

Couple that together with the fact that Ryan Strome's on his way, as are Casey Cizikas (who could very well shore up this offense down the middle), Calvin de Haan, Aaron Ness and Matt Donavan (among others) and you have the makings of something special. The other pieces are already in place.

Additionally, the Isles need to hire an experienced head coach with a proven track record of success.

Maybe that guy is Randy Carlyle (left) or Jacques Martin, maybe it's someone else. But the right one is out there, no doubt about it.

If the New York Islanders can implement these changes, I really think they'll be just fine. The situation is not nearly as dire and this team is not as desperate and hopeless as many believe.

That's my take, feel free to add yours.




Comments are welcome.

7 comments:

Chris said...

You fail to give Snow any blame for his appalling lack of veteran free agent signings. He is responsible for Mottau, Staios, Pandolfo, Reasoner, Rolston, and Eaton. Every one of these players would have a hard time making another NHL roster. He claimed that Rolston was a "hockey decision ". If that were the case, he could have claimed him off waivers. The only reason he is here, is to make it to the cap floor. He cannot recruit solid veteran players and that will prevent the Islanders from competing. And he hasn't hired an NHL quality coach. He needs to take responsibility. He is the "caretaker" and Wang's puppet...

IslesPassion21 said...

Garth will not fire Cappy...Wang will not pay an NHL coach, an NHL coaches $$$ and he only hires from within the organization...He wants to be surrounded by YES MEN...

Isles fans need to get used to Fred Flintstone behind the bench, for better or for worse...

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