Long Faces on the Island: What’s Wrong With the Isles?

Jim Neveau, Senior NHL Correspondent

The New York Islanders came into this season with some really high hopes for the future. They went all out this off-season to keeping their core pieces in place, as they re-signed Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, and John Tavares to contract extensions, and after struggling to a last place finish in the Atlantic Division, thing seemed to be looking up for a franchise in desperate need of good news.

As we’ve come to find in a lot of situations throughout the history of the league, things aren’t always easy when you’re trying to climb out from the bottom of the pile. The bad run of news started late in the summer as the Islanders’ plans for a new arena were rejected by Nassau County voters. The failure of the revamped Lighthouse Project, which would have provided the Isles’ with a replacement for the aging Nassau Coliseum, among other features, amplified the possibility that the team could move to greener pastures, but it was only the beginning of a downward slide.

John Tavares Islanders
(Icon SMI)

In another bad moment for the team, their new third jerseys leaked out on the internet in late August, and the reaction was universally bad. Of course this has nothing to do with on-ice performance (though it can be argued that some teams have felt shame wearing some of the more putrid sweaters over the years), but it was yet another omen of the bad things that were to come.

Once the season started, the news did not improve. After an early three game winning streak which featured triumphs over the Lightning and the Rangers, the Isles have gone 3-8-3 since then, and are currently mired in a drought that has seen them drop 11 of their last 13 contests. Several key cogs have failed to contribute much, as Grabner has seven points in 17 games and Okposo has three assists and zero goals in 14, and the team’s goaltending situation has made them a laughingstock throughout the league. The three-headed monster of Evgeni Nabakov, Rick DiPietro, and Al Montoya was supposed to provide some depth and stability, but instead it has morphed into an injury-filled cacophony of awfulness.

Now, with the team headed to Pittsburgh to face the Penguins in what will undoubtedly be a raucous and wild Consol Energy Center (didn’t you hear? Sidney Crosby is returning!), the Isles have to look in the mirror and ask themselves a very serious question: what is wrong with this club? Who is responsible for the team’s shortcomings? Also, is there anything that they can do to right the ship?

On the long laundry list of things wrong with the squad, you would undoubtedly have to start with the lack of effort that the team has put forward on a night in and night out basis. Head coach Jack Capuano blasted the team after Saturday’s grotesque 6-0 loss to the Bruins, saying in part:

“My thoughts are when you play this game you need to play with fire, you need to play with passion, you need to play with determination, you need to play with desperation, you need to have ice bags after the game, maybe a little blood dripping right now. When you lace your skates up, the guy across from you, the guy on the left and right of you needs to know that you have their back and you’re going to play for one another. And that just didn’t happen tonight. And I don’t have the answers why.”

Needless to say, Jack wasn’t proud of the way his team acquitted itself in this game. His talk of blood dripping on the ice and playing with fire sounds like it came out of a textbook on how to motivate a team via the media, but there is a great deal of truth to the cliches he breathed out like a dragon exhales fire. The team lost just about every battle for the puck in the corners against the Bruins, and never really asserted themselves physically against an offense that is finally starting to find its groove. It may be easy to fall into the trap of lethargy when you are struggling, but there is no other way to get out of that funk than to just put your nose to the grindstone, and until the Islanders do that, there is absolutely no way that they will be turning things around.

Another question that should come up is whether or not the lack of hustle the team has been showing is a result of the moves made in the off-season by General Manager Garth Snow. Yes, he did keep several key forwards in place, but did the pieces that he let go, including Radek Martinek, leave a void in veteran leadership that has yet to be filled? While it would be hard to imagine that the absence of Martinek would be enough to push this team into 26th in the league in goals against, the reality is that the team can’t score, and can’t prevent other teams from scoring, and the make-up of the team has to be a reason why. Owner Charles Wang has to decide whether or not to pull the plug on the direction that Snow is taking the team, or to let him try to fix his own mess. That decision will not be an easy one.

Kyle Okposo (BridgetDS/Flickr)

Finally, there is the question of what to do with Mr. Okposo. Signed to a five-year contract in the off-season, the forward struggled through the team’s early schedule, and three games ago Capuano decided to make him a healthy scratch for the first time in his career. After a loss against the Rangers, the Isles did rebound with a win against the lowly Canadiens, but with their 6-0 loss to Boston, it would seem that Okposo will be coming down from the press box to try to break his goalless drought.

The real question that needs to be asked is whether or not Capuano is making the right decision in sitting Okposo. Yes, he has shown a lack of heart at times this season, but the fact of the matter is that the Islanders don’t exactly have guys banging down the door to take over Kyle’s roster spot, so benching him for three straight games just to get his head on straight seems like a waste of time and talent.

To his credit, Okposo has taken his benching in stride, saying all the right things about learning about the game from watching it from above and how he understands where Capuano and Snow are coming from, but deep down inside he has to feel irritated that a team struggling in all facets seems to be focusing the negative attention on him. It will be interesting to see not only when Kyle gets back into the lineup, but whether or not it has a positive impact on his performance.

So clearly the effort level needs to come up not just on the part of Okposo, but on the whole team. Streit and guys like Tavares need to show some leadership as well and try to motivate their teammates not to accept losing as an inevitability, but if they are unable to do that, then either Snow or Wang needs to do something to shake up the personnel. The play on the field may be what’s directly causing the issues facing this squad, but it was Snow that put it together, so he needs to be held accountable in some way. If the Islanders continue to struggle, then there needs to be yet another regime change on Long Island, and that’s not something that a fanbase waiting for results wants to hear.