When it comes to the New York Islanders this season, there has been plenty of reason for praise.
This is a team that, in the face of losing captain John Tavares, one of the best players in the history of the organization, has done everything but buckle. This is a team that has seen a reclamation project, goaltender Robin Lehner, become a legitimate Vezina Trophy contender. This is a team that has produced a possible Jack Adams Award-winner in Barry Trotz. This is a team that has rallied around each other and turned in results, one that has defied all expectations and earned itself a spot among the best in the Metropolitan Division.
But this is also a team that is starting to show some serious flaws, and the timing of it all couldn’t be much worse.
As they enter action Monday, three points back of the Washington Capitals for first in the division and two points ahead of the third-place Pittsburgh Penguins, the Islanders do so amidst what has been one of their worst runs of the season, one which comes on the heels of one of their absolute best. From mid-December to mid-January – Dec. 23 to Jan. 20, to be exact – the Islanders were among the best teams in the NHL. Playing 14 games, New York walked away victorious from a dozen. They downed top teams, blew out bottom feeders and played like men on a mission. But in the time since that run ended, rather unceremoniously with a shootout defeat at the hands of the likely lottery-contending Chicago Blackhawks back on Jan. 22, the Islanders have appeared far less dominant and much more mediocre.
To wit, beginning with that loss to the Blackhawks, New York’s record over the past seven weeks is a mere 10-7-3, which puts the Islanders not among the top teams in the NHL over that span but rather firmly in the middle. In fact, since their run of 12 wins in 14 games closed, New York sits right about dead-center: 15th in the NHL with 23 points.
What’s worrisome, though, isn’t the record. Even the best of the best go through their periods of so-so play. (Unless, that is, you’re the Tampa Bay Lightning, who seem dead-set on pursuing the highest point total in NHL history.) No, what has grown concerning is that some of the Islanders’ imperfections are beginning to come to roost in a way in which they weren’t much earlier in the campaign and the cracks that remain in the facade are unsettling given the point we’ve reached in the season.
It’s been no secret this season that the Islanders have been far from a new-age possession-first club. Truth be told, they’re more an old-school will-over-skill bunch than anything else. But the inability to control games from start to finish has started to result in contests going sideways for the Islanders, and it doesn’t help that their already unexceptional possession numbers have taken a dip further south in recent weeks.
Consider that through to the end of the Islanders’ December-through-January heater, New York boasted a 47.9 Corsi percentage, 48.8 shots percentage, 48.8 scoring chance percentage and 52.5 high-danger scoring chance percentage at 5-on-5, according to NaturalStatTrick. Barring the latter, those are by no means excellent numbers. However, the percentages since that streak came to a close have dropped precipitously. The Corsi percentage has dipped to 46.7 percent, shots percentage has declined to 47.6 percent, scoring chance percentage is down to 47.7 percent and the high-danger rate has fallen similarly to 50.8 percent.
That’s the result of the Islanders’ near wholesale decline in per-60-minute rates over the past 20 games. That includes half an attempt fewer with an additional 2.4 against per 60 minutes. One-third fewer scoring chances with more than one additional chance against per 60 minutes. And nearly half a high-danger chance fewer per 60 minutes with 1.2 additional chances against. The only rise New York has seen in any of these rates is a minuscule one-fifth of a shot for per 60 minutes. But that hasn’t at all helped counteract the overall percentage decline, not when you account for the nearly 1.3 extra shots against over the same hour of 5-on-5 play.
The byproduct of the Islanders’ play has been an even greater onus on the goaltending to come through as it has all season. And while that may have been all well and good while both Lehner and Thomas Greiss were operating as the best one-two punch in the league, it’s slightly more worrisome with both showing some signs of slowing. Over the past 20 games, the Islanders’ once league-best 5-on-5 keeping has slid to seventh in the NHL. That threatens to dip further with Lehner hitting the shelf with an upper-body injury, one New York has stopped short of calling a concussion despite whispers that’s exactly what he’s battling.
Further, the lack of a truly deep attack hurts if the goaltending should slow. No single Islander has more than 60 points – Mat Barzal’s 55 points lead the club – and New York hardly has the most fearsome top-six in the division, let alone the conference. Goal production hasn’t been the team’s strong suit this season, and that’s no wonder with near league-low rates of shot attempt and shot generation. Over the past seven weeks, though, the Islanders’ 2.6 goals per game are down nearly a quarter-goal from the nearly 3.0 goals per game pace prior to the end of the winning streak.
None of this is to write off the Islanders – not with what has happened throughout this campaign, at least. Far too many times this season, New York has proven everyone wrong. But with recent results and a continued inability to push play in the right direction, the approach going forward might not be much more than extremely cautious optimism. There’s still hope the Islanders can make more magic before this season is through, but doing so is going to require a reversal of this inconsistency that has plagued New York for nearly two months.