The New York Islanders entered this season feeling optimistic.
Though they’d missed the playoffs last season, largely due to a poor first half, their improved play in the second half – buoyed by Jack Capuano, who took over at mid-season as coach, the performance of then-rookie left winger Michael Grabner, the late-season addition of goalie Al Montoya and the continued development of young center John Tavares – raised expectations the Isles would be a better club in 2011-12.
Those expectations were bolstered by the off-season re-signings of Tavares, Grabner and right winger Kyle Okposo, as well as the return of veteran defenseman Mark Streit, who missed the entire 2010-11 campaign to a shoulder injury.
Their loyalty to the organization and that of left winger Matt Moulson, who re-signed for a multi-year deal back in January, created the impression of a tight-knit, talented group poised for a breakout season.
Sadly, the anticipated improvement has yet to materialize, as the Isles sit last in the Eastern Conference (and second worst in the league), with only four wins and 11 points in 14 games.
Tavares has done his part, with 14 points in as many games, and Streit has provided invaluable puck-moving skills that were missing on their blueline last season when he was sidelined.
Montoya has performed well in the few games he’s played this season (2-2-1, 2.44 GAA, .926 SP), though he’s split time with Evgeni Nabokov and Rick DiPietro, as the club plays musical goalies (in part because it’s believed they’re trying to showcase Nabokov for a trade).
As for the rest of the players on the roster, they haven’t played up to the expectation of their fans and coaches.
The Isles have struggled offensively, ranking dead last in goals-scored with only 29.
Their defensive play is also worrisome, having given up the 13th-most goals (42) and the sixth-most shots-per-game (32), with a penalty kill ranked 20th overall at 79.6 percent.
Capuano has been patient with his club, but in a recent interview it was clear that was coming to an end, calling out several players (though not by name) for talking a good game with the media, but failing to back up those words on the ice.
Two of those underachievers are Okposo and left winger Blake Comeau, both of whom are off to the worst starts of their young NHL careers.
Okposo, a 52-point man two seasons ago, recorded 20 points in 38 games in 2010-11. He has only three points in 14 games this season, putting him on pace for just 17.
Until recently, Comeau showed steady improvement since his 2006-07 debut, including a career-best 24-goal, 46-point performance last season. He has no points in 12 games so far.
He’s been a healthy scratch for two games in October and his recent performance suggests he’ll soon return to the press box.
The Isles struggles have led to concerns that another early season free-fall will scuttle their playoff chances by mid-season. That’s led to rumors of shakeups via trades, the most notable being a recent erroneous report claiming they’d shipped Nabokov to the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman Fedor Tyutin.
GM Garth Snow not only denied that report, but also claimed no trades were imminent for his team. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Islanders, especially Nabokov, from appearing almost daily in the rumor mill since the start of November.
Snow will have to find another club for Nabokov at some point, barring, of course, another potentially season-threatening injury to Rick DiPietro.
It’s proving difficult for the Isles to establish a set tandem between the pipes while attempting to showcase Nabokov and still provide sufficient playing time for DiPietro and Montoya.
Okposo’s struggles this season aren’t expected to make him a trade candidate, but the same cannot be said for Comeau, who engaged in a lengthy contract standoff with the Isles in the off-season, resulting in his inking only a one-year deal.
Capuano looks to have lost confidence in Comeau and if things don’t soon improve for the Isles in the standings, it’s possible the 25-year-old winger will be peddled to another club.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.