The New York Islanders looked to be a franchise back on the upswing in the 2013 NHL season. The team that had dominated hockey in the early 1980s, winning the Stanley Cup four straight years from 1980-83, had fallen into dangerous irrelevance. Then the Isles got it going last year, made the playoffs and gave the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins a tough six-game series in the first round.
But it’s all gone awry in the early part of the new season and New York is 12 points out of the playoffs. Why?
Defense was never a strong suit of the Islanders even in their playoff run, and it’s gotten worse this year. It really boils down to goaltending that is absolutely awful. The Isles have split their starts in net between Evgeni Nabakov and Kevin Poulin and gotten disastrous results in either case.
Both goalies are below 90 percent in save percentage–in spite of the fact fewer starts should make it easier to put up a high percentage. Nabokov ranks 40th in the NHL in save percentage, with Poulin at 44th. When you play in a 30-team league and these are your choices, you aren’t going to beat anyone.
The goalie problems really sum it up. The team defense, while not great, isn’t terrible. The Islanders rank 19th in allowing shots, but the goalie problems translate that into 29th in the bottom line of goals allowed. The mere fact the Isles don’t allow the most goals in the league with these netminders is a credit to the team defense in front of them.
Offensively this is a harder team to read. They’re having a tough time right now, ranking 23rd in goals, but a 16th-place ranking at shot generation suggests that better days might be ahead. The problem with that theory is that it usually presumes key offensive players are subpar. That’s not the case here though.
John Tavares, the center who was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP a year ago, has already poured in 28 goals and dished 19 assists. Thomas Vanek has 20 goals/21 assists. If someone else is going to start scoring more I’m not sure who a likely candidate is.
Thus we have a situation where the aggregate offensive numbers tell us that more goals are on the way, while an individual breakdown indicates the team’s production is already maxing out. Take your pick as to which you believe in, but unless the goalie situation improves it’s not going to matter. New York needs to try something drastic or last year’s gains are going to be poured down the sewer.