The best-laid plans of ice and men often go awry. For proof of that, look no further than the New York Islanders this season.
This was supposed to be the year the Isles broke through in the playoffs and made it to the Stanley Cup Final. This was the year the Islanders were going to set the bar for team cohesion. This was the year head coach Barry Trotz would have the road to a championship clearly mapped out for his players.
Then the season began, and all those plans fell to the wayside as the Isles lost their first two games of the year. Trotz got them back on a modest rebound, and they won five of seven games, but after beating the Winnipeg Jets 2-0 on Nov. 6th, the Islanders completely fell apart, and they still haven’t found their way back to contention. They’ve lost eight straight, including a 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins Nov. 26th. During this losing skid, they’ve been shut out three times, and they haven’t scored more than two goals in any games. They’re currently at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division, with a 5-10-2 record. They’re 12 points (and four teams) behind the final playoff berth. They’re 0-4-0 at home. It’s a disaster.
And now, word comes that the NHL has postponed the Islanders’ next two games, through Nov. 30th. The Isles’ roster has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic: they presently have eight players in the NHL’s COVID protocols, including captain Anders Lee, forwards Casey Cizikas, Josh Bailey, Kieffer Bellows, and Ross Johnston, as well as defensemen Zdeno Chara, Andy Greene, and Adam Pelech. Consequently, they’re outmatched against virtually every opponent because their roster depth is not good enough to put up a legitimate fight at the NHL level. This move to cancel games could have come sooner, but league brass wants as few rescheduled games as possible.
It’s been said many times, but it bears repeating: you can’t win a Cup in the first couple months of the regular season, but you sure can bury your Cup hopes early in the year. And, barring some miraculous comeback by the Isles, it sure seems like their season has been buried. All it takes is a few dismal weeks to sink your Cup hopes, and the Islanders definitely have struggled and continue to struggle. But no one is questioning Trotz’s expertise, and GM Lou Lamoriello is not going to repeat his history of firing coaches and taking over the bench himself.
This is the challenge for the Isles at this point: you have to get back in the win column, and you have to do it incredibly consistently. There’s no more room for error. They probably will need a little help from other Metro Division teams to get back in playoff contention. This is how the league works. There are always going to be Metro teams winning, putting more space between them and the Islanders. Every loss the Isles go through – especially the regulation-time losses, of which they have 10 – is demoralizing for them and their fan base.
All this has dragged down the Islanders to a place that’s unfortunately familiar. They’ve underachieved and have had no puck luck. And they’ve hit rock bottom. That said, there should be some comfort that the Isles have two of the smartest hockey men alive in Trotz and Lamoriello; there aren’t better coaches or GMs to guide them out of this awful stretch.
That attempt to turn things around starts for the Islanders – well, hopefully, anyway – on Dec. 2nd, and it kicks off a portion of the schedule the Isles should feast on: they start against San Jose, then play a back-to-back sequence against the Red Wings in Detroit, and the next night, they host Chicago. Those games are part of a schedule stretch of six games in 12 nights, in which the Islanders also will square off against Ottawa, Nashville, New Jersey, and the Red Wings for the second time in 10 days. Those are all winnable games for an Isles team that’s at full strength. And the schedule gets much tougher after that, with games in mid-December against Boston, Vegas, and Washington.
It’s safe to say that, if the Islanders can’t pull out of this tailspin, they’re going to be going through the motions for the remainder of the year. And it stinks, because their fan base deserves better luck from the hockey gods. They got a new arena, but they’ve yet to see the Isles team that stunned the league last season with its post-season prowess. Sports, like life, isn’t fair.
But time is everything for the Islanders now. They’ve got a window to turn their season around, but it’s a small window, and it’s getting smaller every day. However, this league-mandated pandemic break may be just what the Isles need: a reset, a chance to put the recent past in the furthest recesses of their minds. If they do find their way back into the playoff race, Trotz may once again be honored as the NHL’s best coach. And you know Lamoriello will do just about anything to get his team moving in the right direction.
It will be fascinating to see which Isles players step up and try to change the team’s fortunes. But it’s got to happen as soon as the team is cleared to play at something approaching full strength. If not, you have to come to terms with the tough sledding immediately ahead. A lost season is a very real possibility for the Islanders, and though they say time flies, it won’t in this instance. It’s a long, long time until the 2022-23 season gives them a clean slate.