New York Islanders 2012 Review
After allowing seven goals to the Columbus Blue Jackets in an onslaught of a hockey game, the final buzzer at the Nationwide Arena would not only sound the ending of a massacre, but also signify the end of what was a disappointing season for the New York Islanders.
It was a disappointing year for many reasons. With the rebuild entering its fourth season, many expected this team's fortunes to change. For plenty, that meant making the playoffs instead of falling into the draft lottery. For yours truly, that meant climbing out of the cellar but not high enough to reach 8th place. I am sad to say that we were both wrong. The Islanders finished the year out of the playoffs and 27th overall in the league, giving them the fourth overall pick going into Tuesday night's draft lottery for the second year in a row.
On paper you can call the 2012 season just the same as any other. At 14th place in the Eastern Conference, the Isles finished the season with a 34-37-11 record with 79 points. That's only a six point improvement over last season and the SAME exact record as the year before that in 2010. It would almost appear that the rebuild has established a trend of not going up or down, but rather staying put.
But the team did manage to have fans and the media using the word "playoffs" in their vocabulary for the first time since Ted Nolan was the head coach. There were a handful of times this year where the Islanders were only five points out of the playoff picture, a vast improvement over the past, especially since this is basically the same team that lost 20 games in a row in 2011. But the same inconsistent play would allow this team to be the abusive significant other in every fan's life; just as soon as they made you think things were going to change for the better, they would slap you in the face with a heartbreaking loss the very next night - and despite how much it hurt, Islanders fans would continue to come back for more, hoping that things would get better. But in the end, you would have better luck with winning the (draft) lottery.
You can say that is due largely in part to the roster not taking any major changes over the past few seasons. With the exception of Evgeni Nabokov between the pipes, the roster has almost looked identical every season. Veteran additions like Brian Rolston, Steve Staios and Jay Pandolfo did not do anything to help this team improve, but only helped them reach the cap floor while adding experience - but experience doesn't have value if it cannot be applied in a meaningful way. Those three players did nothing for this team offensively, and with the exception of Pandolfo's PK skills, they really did not do much for this team defensively either. (Robert Kowal/Flickr)
The Isles poorly structured defense is accountable for a lot of the blame for why they performed as so this year. Milan Jurcina, Mark Eaton, Mark Streit and Staios combined for a -97 rating (for those keeping score, the Islanders had 255 goals against this year). Travis Hamonic was the only defenseman on the plus side with a +6. Youngsters Calvin de Haan, Aaron Ness and Matt Donovan are pressing for roster spots and I'd bet that at least two out of these three will be on the team next year with Streit, Hamonic and MacDonald since Eaton, Staios and Jurcina are likely not returning. Donovan, who played in the Isles final few games, looked very comfortable at the NHL level. In one shift against the Blue Jackets, Donovan hit the crossbar and got two other shots on net just from joining the rush. It will be fun watching him develop next year in an Islanders uniform. But a guy like him will benefit from having another experienced top-four blue liner as his partner - not someone who is almost a -30.
If Garth Snow wants to see his team take the next step and really challenge for a playoff spot next year, he will have to find viable veterans that can play and contribute offensively. The Islanders finished the 2012 season with the fourth worst offense in the league. Last year the Isles were right in the middle of the pack in goals for, ranked 15th in the league. So if this was the same team, what the heck happened? Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau and Michael Grabner all started off the year with dismal offensive numbers. Both Comeau and Grabner were responsible for over 50 of the team's goals scored last year. Comeau never scored a goal for the Islanders this year and Grabner didn't really start to score until December and January, continuing his notorious slow start habits.
Despite the scoring output, the Islanders still had two thirty goal scorers, two twenty goal scorers and two finish between 15-20 goals as well. Okposo managed 24 goals, the best of his career, even though he didn't score his first until November 23rd. Imagine if it didn't take this kid almost two full months to get going...
All in all, fans can definitely take solace in the fact that the Islanders finally had a first line for the first time in years. The deadly combination of Matt Moulson-John Tavares-PA Parenteau proved to be a lethal threat each night. Tavares' 81 points, Moulson's 36 goals and Parenteau's 49 assists were the only other reason, besides Nabokov, that the Islanders were competitive on any given night. But for those occasional games where the top line couldn't get the job done, the Islanders would easily be shut down by the opposition. (bridgetds/Flickr)
Which returns me to my point that Snow has to find the right veterans to change this hockey team. No more Brian Rolston's. No more Pandolfo's or Jon Sim's or Ruslan Fedotenko's. The Islanders need to sign at least one top six forward and one top-four defenseman to change the outcome of this hockey club. As seen above, the main members of the Islanders core still managed to have career years on a team that could not score goals and had terrible individual starts to the year. If the right veterans are put in place that can help the teams' scoring woes as well as establish a leadership presence for this young team, then things can change for the better.
Charles Wang recently announced that both head coach Jack Capuano and Garth Snow will be returning next year. Some are upset while others aren't. In my opinion, Snow has done what he could with an organization that has given him limited spending opportunities (they only manage to hover above the cap floor each year) to go along with an unknown arena situation that plays in the mind of every free agent. And for those who want to blame Wang, go ahead. I can't argue that he has made some questionable decisions for this franchise over the years. But with that being said, he is still one of the most loyal owners in the National Hockey League who has continued to try to save his hockey team from leaving Nassau County. He went the Democratic way; he went the Republican way; he went to the Town of Hempstead; he went straight to the County; and he's gotten nowhere. Tell me another smart business owner that would tell his manager to spend away when he continues to lose money each season after being discarded off the table by every local politician that he's come into contact with.
But Snow being handcuffed financially does not excuse the fact that he determined Nino Niederreiter's fate with a hand shake before the season started. He admitted that Nino would have been better off in the AHL this year, but promised him a spot with the Islanders instead of sending him back to the WHL for another year. That got Nino nothing but fourth line minutes with players who couldn't put the puck in the back of the net or didn't deserve to be in the NHL at all. I am expecting Nino to start with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers next year to remind him what it's like to score goals with top-six line mates. Hopefully his development hasn't been derailed as a result of Snow's decision. This is going to be something that will be watched closely for some time and heavily debated probably up until Niederreiter is somewhere between 23-25 years old and entering his prime. Many will remember what happened when Josh Bailey was rushed to the NHL. Nino has so much size and skill for a kid his age that it would be a major crime if he were to never reach his potential over a premature handshake. (Official New York Islanders/Flickr)
Speaking of Bailey, I think the Islanders might have finally realized that he will play his best hockey when placed on the wing. For the second time in his career, Bailey has performed as a point scoring machine when relieved of his defensive duties at center. When used up the middle he would rarely score goals or make great plays but would play as a great defensive forward. Having the versatility to use Bailey in both situations could make him one of the most underrated hockey players on this club. But for a team that has struggled to score goals, Bailey should be tried for a third time on the wing to start next year to see if he can finally eclipse more than 30 points in a season.
When looking between the pipes, the Islanders got stellar goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov and he will probably have Kevin Poulin behind him in the back-up role. With Al Montoya likely on his way out to free agency, Poulin looks to be ready to take his job, learning a lot from a veteran like Nabokov while in the back-up position. It would be a great learning experience if Poulin could get between 20-30 starts next year with Nabby carrying the number one role on his shoulders. But we can't forget that the Islanders still employ Rick DiPietro, who has refused to allow the idea of retirement to enter his head. But fans shouldn't worry too much. If anyone knows anything, DP will probably be injured for the majority of next season once again. Sadly, from a team perspective, it would be for the better. His rust and broken down body have prevented him from playing anything like the DP we knew almost 10 years ago. And, unfortunately, he has not given any reason for anyone to expect anything more from him than another injury riddled season. Everyone is rooting for him to one day return as a number one goalie, but at this point you just have to ask, when is enough, enough?
As far as Capuano goes, hopefully he can learn a lot from the choices he made this year since it was only his first full season behind the bench of an NHL team. Like many other players in this rebuild, this year was a learning/growing experience for Capuano. His biggest test will be to find a way to motivate his team on a consistent basis and get the best out of his players in crucial games.
There are a lot of questions surrounding the Islanders and, once again, many holes to fill if this team is going to get better. I did say I didn't want this from the beginning, but having another lottery pick will bode well for this team down the line as you can never have too many top rated prospects. When you look at teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, they didn't just become great teams once they got one or two all-stars out of the draft - they had several.
But at the end of the day, Snow has to do something more in order for this team to show improvement. It can't be all about John Tavares, Matt Moulson and perhaps Ryan Strome. It can't be about waiver wire pick-ups and NHL cast-offs. There has to be a set plan heading into this summer's free agent market. I am not saying, nor am I expecting, the Islanders to sign a number one forward and number one defenseman. With the Coliseum lease set to expire in just three more seasons, it would be unwise for Wang to dish out that kind of cash. But it can be looked upon just as foolish if Snow were to bring in more players that don't even deserve to be in the National Hockey League.
Rebuilds are about progress. There has been in some areas, but overall, this has been the same team for the past three years. Heading into year five, things will have to be different if the New York Islanders are to be successful.