Sunday, January 29, 2012

Isles All-Star Break Awards, Part I

The Islanders are on the outside looking in right now, but there's what to like and what needs improvement.

We'll discuss both the pros and cons, as the All-Star Break Awards are handed out in this two-part segment. Enjoy.


BEST GOALTENDER: EVGENI NABOKOV 

Unlike fellow countryman Ilya Bryzgalov, Evgeni Nabokov focuses less on the universe and more on keeping pucks out of his net. 

Nothing like starting off with a bit of controversy, eh?

I'm sure many of you will disagree with my choice, wondering how I could possibly have the audacity to pick Nabokov over Al Montoya — a fan-favorite and solid goalie in his own right.

This should not be taken as a slight and I'll be the first to vouch for Montoya and what he's done since arriving on Long Island.

The biggest difference between the two net-minders is as follows: Montoya keeps the Isles in hockey games, Nabokov steals 'em.

Nabby's had to make 30-plus saves on six different occasions this season (Al's only done so four times).  e's flat-out robbed opposing teams of a win more than once, something he's done as recently as this past week, when he stopped 40 shots en route to a 4-1 victory in Philadelphia.

Not that statistics tell the entire story, but for what they're worth, Nabby's are more impressive. He has a losing record (10-12-0), which at first glance doesn't look so great compared to Montoya (6-5-4).

Once you consider that Al's sample size is smaller —he's appeared in 18 games, Nabokov in 24— and that he's received more offensive support —2.66 goals-per-game when he's between the pipes, as opposed to 2.45 when Nabokov plays— that changes everything.

Nabokov's goals-against average (2.38) is also better than Montoya's (2.54), as is his save percentage (.919, compared to Montoya's .912).

Obviously there's still plenty of hockey left to be played, but for now, Nabokov's "the guy" and has shown a whole lot of confidence on the ice. Montoya's no slouch either, but at the present time, he's simply not the best goaltender on this team.


OFFENSIVE MVP: JOHN TAVARES

Now in the midst of his third NHL season, John Tavares has matured into a bona-fide star hockey player.

A certain writer for ESPN.com (who shall remain nameless) doesn't seem to think too much of him, but just about everyone else in hockey knows the truth about the "Marginally-Talented Mr. Tavares."

Tavares has shown improvement in each of his first three seasons, recording 54 points as a rookie and 67 as a sophomore. He's on pace for 83 by the end of 2011-12 and has 22 in his last 14 games.

JT's a significantly stronger player and faster skater than he was on Draft Day 2009, and that's a major reason why his stock continues to rise. He's not just the best on the Islanders, he's one of the top forwards in hockey right now.

It's reached the point where you simply know Tavares is going to show up every single night, and it's been quite some time since the Isles had such a player.


HONORABLE MENTION: MATT MOULSON

If Moulson's goal-scoring streaks were as long as his hair, he'd have at least 60 of 'em. We're perfectly fine with 30-plus too, though. 
Matt Moulson is one heck of a goal-scorer, as he's shown over the last two of seasons. Considering he's averaged 30.5 goals in that span, and that he has 22 through 48 games this year, I'd be shocked if Moulson didn't top his career-high of 31 (2010-11).

He always seems to be in the right place on the ice at the right time and, even better, he knows how to cash-in on those opportunities. Of course, the fact that he and Tavares have excellent chemistry only serves to increase the threat-level.

Moulson is on pace to finish with 37 goals and 72 points by season's end.


DEFENSIVE MVP: TRAVIS HAMONIC

Hamonic can lose his temper sometimes, but even when he's come you don't want to mess with him.

Travis Hamonic has become the Isles' premier shut-down defenseman, a label he's earned over the course of 110 games since moving up to the NHL last season.

Hamonic's plus-two rating might not impress you, unless you consider that he plays for a team that, as a whole, surrenders an awful lot of goals. He takes a ton of shots and blocks plenty as well. Travis has also shown he can hit and that's a valuable asset that not many Islander players have, unfortunately.

On a defense that's been mediocre (at best) this year, Travis Hamonic has found a way, once again, to buck the trend.


HONORABLE MENTION: MARK STREIT

Mark Streit is not Nicklas Lidstrom. But, then again, he was never supposed to be. Having said that, he is an integral part of this team

Mark Streit's probably the biggest reason why the Islanders are a top-five powerplay team right now.

He's taken a lot of heat this season from fans, and I feel that's because people's expectations of him were simply too high. Streit's boasted a positive plus/minus rating just once in his entire career, and yet he's now being criticized for being a minus-player.

Streit's 34 years-old and has a bad shoulder; the odds of him being as effective as he was two seasons ago were particularly low. Yet, we're all acting as if they guy's 27 or 28 and complaining like there's no tomorrow.

He is what he is: A talented, puck-moving defenseman who can quarterback the powerplay and create offense from the blueline. That's what Streit's always been and that's what you're seeing again this season.

Mark Streit has amassed 26 points in 48 games this season. Don't pretend he isn't producing or doing anything of importance for this team, because if you think otherwise, you're outside your mind. So much of the Isles' offense has come with the man-advantage this season and without Streit, this team doesn't even have that luxury.


MOST-IMPROVED PLAYER: KYLE OKPOSO

Having found his way out of the doghouse and onto the first line, Kyle Okposo's looking more and more like the player the Islanders thought they drafted in 2006.
Kyle Okposo struggled at the start of the season and appeared to have taken a step back. Head Coach Jack Capuano even benched him for three consecutive games.

It would appear that the message was received. Surely enough, Okposo began producing again, and since being placed on the top line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson, he's been even better, showing lots of confidence in the offensive zone.

He has eight points in his last nine games and, if not for his slow start, could've had 50-plus this season. The important thing is that Okposo's playing very good hockey right now and, hopefully, that trend will continue.


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