On The Offensive: Isles Evaluations
The season for the New York Islanders is more than halfway over, having completed Game 46 of the 82-game season last night with a 2-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime. The win has brought the Isles to a 19-21-6 record putting them eight points out of a playoff spot behind the Washington Capitals sitting in the final eighth spot.
As John Madonia pointed out in his post-game wrap up, these next two games against the Toronto Maple Leafs are crucial for the Islanders. For the first time in years, Islanders fans are able to find themselves in a position where they can start looking at the standings and sharing concerns about the success of other teams in their Conference. Two wins against the Leafs would hypothetically put the Isles at only four points out of the playoffs and see them with a .500 record.
The Isles are not in last in the Eastern Conference; they are currently out of the draft lottery; and John Tavares has emerged as an elite talent in the NHL. Part of the rebuild requires looking for signs of progress in all areas. Although those signs that are mentioned above don't necessarily amount to the hopes and dreams of most Islanders fans, they are still important. Slow and steady as she goes.
With the Isles potentially about to hit their second half of the season rush, it's time to look at the forwards of this team and see how they have fit into the team's rebuild...and where they might fit in the future.
John Tavares has been the center piece for success since the Islanders drafted him three years ago. In that time, Tavares has gone from a young, developing forward into an NHL All-Star. He currently has 48 points in 46 games played and is riding a 12-game point streak, the longest active streak in the NHL this season. He truly has emerged as a dynamic hockey player that can be a difference maker with any shift he takes - and he knows it. Tavares is not the kid with a ton of expectations surrounding him anymore. He's a kid that is starting to meet those expectations and taking charge. Mark my words, I am sure that there is still more to see when it comes to John Tavares.
Matt Moulson continues to improve every year as well. He is often overshadowed by Tavares, but he is on pace for a 40-goal season and has 43 points in 46 games played. Keep in mind that these are contract earning numbers while he is already under contract for two more years after this one. Tavares and Moulson, who have been paired together since the beginning, are likely to grow in parallel fashion. As Tavares gets better, so will Moulson. Only good things to come from here.
P.A. Parenteau has become the Isles unsung hero for this team. He's gone from a player that many thought would be traded or let go after this year after others stepped up. But Parenteau is third on this team in points and completes a trio with Moulson and Tavares as the first three players from one team with forty points each in the Eastern Conference. Although he spent most of his time with those two, he has proven to be a versatile forward with different line mates and a major contributor on the power play. He is here on a one-year contract, but expect him to be signed for a few more years.
Kyle Okposo had started off slower than, well, everyone expected. He had a sub-par 2011 season since it had a delayed start due to injury. But this year had no excuses. After being benched by head coach Jack Capuano, Okposo has earned his way to the top line and has improved his play dramatically. Many might have been worried about his development with such a slow start, but he is showing that he still possesses the tools to be a top-six power forward.
Frans Nielsen is having the typical season that he always seems to have. He scored 44 points last year, setting career highs and is on pace for about the same numbers. The biggest criticism surrounding Nielsen is where he is used on the team's four lines. Typically used as a second line center, Nielsen's size, two-way play and limited offensive skill set would be better utilized in a the third line role. However, his reliability has allowed him to slide into the second center spot since their is a significant drop off after Tavares, but that can be an entire blog in itself.
Michael Grabner has had another slow start to his season, something that has plagued his production throughout his short career. There is no reason to believe that Grabner can't score 16 goals in the final half of the season and reach the 30-goal plateau for the second year in a row. He has started to find the open ice that allows him to create breakaways much more frequently over the past few games. But he NEEDS to learn how to score on breakaways. My advice? Just shoot the puck. Grabner makes one too many moves and seems to score more often when he puts the puck top shelf instead of trying to find an opening in the pads. But at the end of the day, his speed and offense - when firing on all cylinders - is a great asset to this team.
Josh Bailey has been playing as a reliable two-way forward on the third line, but his inability to rise to the level of a top-10 draft talent has him labeled as a bottom-six forward on this team. With only 12 points in 46 games played, Bailey is on pace for another terrible season. However, I would be out of line if I didn't mention how well he has been playing in a defensive-center role. But Bailey's spot on this team is still written in pencil, especially with Ryan Strome likely to make this team next year, and his hands and play-making skills will certainly give Bailey a run for his money.
When you think of the heart and soul of this team, it's impossible to overlook Matt Martin. He is the hitter, the fighter and the grit that provides this team a backbone. He defends everyone of his teammates and has even potted a few this year. There were a few questions regarding Martin's placement on this team, if he was even a lock out of training camp. Well, he certainly has found his place in an Islanders uniform and will likely be here for some time.
When you want to think in the opposite direction of Matt Martin, you can take a look at Brian Rolston. There's no doubt that he wants to win, but he just doesn't seem to fit into the Islanders system. He is a slow skater in a system that focuses on speed; his hands are about as quick as his feet and his slap shot is all he has to bring to the table. But how many times has he scored with it? He only has four on the year, and I can remember at least one of them being an empty net goal.
You can put Marty Reasoner in the same category as Rolston. In his defense, he is out with a broken hand right now, but he still hasn't scored a goal this season and has been both a defensive and offensive liability when on the ice. Reasoner has been a far cry from his predecessor, Zenon Konopka and will likely find himself off the Island after this year with Rolston.
Jay Pandolfo has been a hard-working veteran on the fourth line that blocks shots on the penalty kill; he does his job well. But let's face it. His spot could be better served by having Micheal Haley on the roster or another young player looking to make an impact with the big club. (Are you starting to see a trend with these veterans? They are not the right fit with this team). Do not expect him back next season. There is plenty of youth that is pressing for a spot with the Islanders that should easily take his job, for the better of the team.
Nino Niederreiter is the player that concerns fans the most. He only has one goal this season and has been playing on the fourth line with Pandolfo and Tim Wallace, a career minor league forward that is only playing in the absence of Reasoner (could you believe that Reasoner's lack of offense was replaced with...well, a lack of offense?) In Nino's defense, he has dressed for only half of the games that have been played this season since he has faced two injuries so far. But when will he get a chance to play with line mates who can get him the puck? Line mates that he can pass too and expect results from? Line mates that he can create space for and do the same in return for him? Playing him only a few minutes a game with players who barely have a role on this team is not going to help his progress. You have to wonder if his injuries will be looked at as a setback in his development, or if Capuano's decisions will be the real culprit.
David Ullstrom looks like he has the potential to be a reliable third line forward on this team in the future, but his small stature and inexperience could use some more tinkering in the minors with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Stay tuned for my follow up this week on the defense.