The Islanders head to the All-Star break with a 25-16-6 record (56 points), three points behind the second place New York Rangers with two games in hand. With their next game not until Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild, now is a good time to see what went right and wrong in the first half.
What Went Right
The tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss. The Islanders started the regular season with Halak on the injured reserve and Greiss proved to be a revelation. He, perhaps, was the team’s first-half MVP. The 29-year old has already set a career high with 13 wins and is just four games away from tying his career high in games played with 25 – a number which will certainly be shattered with the Islanders set to play 35 games in 68 days, including six back-to-back games. The second half will be uncharted waters for Greiss. While it seems unlikely Halak (12 wins) will reach his career high of 38 wins set last season, his .923 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average are improved from a season ago.
The success of the goaltenders have to be attributed to the play of the team’s defense, especially the likes of Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan. Hamonic, who requested a trade prior to the start of the season, has not let that affect his play on the ice. While general manager Garth Snow has done and will do everything to accommodate the defenseman’s request, Snow will do what he feels is right for the team, which will likely be moving Hamonic following the season. The Islanders potentially had a defenseman who could soften the blow of Hamonic’s departure in rookie Adam Pelech, who will likely miss the remainder of the regular season with an illness. Pelech looked like he belong during his short stint with the team.
de Haan has flown under the radar for most of the season but has gotten first pairing minutes with the absence of Boychuk and Hamonic. de Haan has certainly risen to the challenge. The rise of the 12th overall selection in the 2009 draft has certainly been methodical. While his offensive numbers are not flashy, Calvin de Haan has been the steady, consistent defenseman Snow thought he could become when he drafted him back in 2009. de Haan missed nine games due to injury and was a healthy scratch for eight games of the last 24 games a season ago. He has proven he can stay in the lineup this season as he had played in all of the team’s 47 games.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the team’s play shorthanded. The Isles are second in the league with a 87.2 percent success rate – huge improvement from last season when New York ranked 26th with a 78 percent success rate.
If you ask any hockey fan the question “Who leads the Islanders in goals?” the answer would likely be John Tavares. That would be incorrect. Brock Nelson has had a fabulous first half, leading the team with 19 goals. He is just one short of his career high of 20, set last season. Nelson, who struggled the second half of last season, limped to 20 goals last season. If he remains as consistent as he was in the first half, 30-35 goals is not out of the question. Nelson possesses the best wrist shot on the team. He should be representing the Islanders in Nashville this weekend, not Tavares. It seems like the game of contract chicken played prior to the start of training camp is long forgotten.
What Went Wrong
The Islanders are six wins off of their pre All-Star Break of 31 a season ago. While the Islanders are a playoff team, they have been awfully inconsistent. The team has not had a streak longer than four wins and three losses. The offense has yet to find a groove and that falls on Tavares. He has played with seven different forwards in the first half of the season to be fair. The captain is on pace for his lowest output in a 82-game season. Tavares missed three games a month into the season with the flu. The aftereffects of the illness may have affected his play. He went scoreless in his first two games back but had a little hot streak (5 goals, 4 assists) in his next seven games. The captain’s play has picked up in the team’s last five games (1 goal, 3 assists). Tavares has historically been a second-half player. Lets hope history repeats.
Tavares’ linemates to start the season have struggled in the first half. Big things were expected from both Ryan Strome and Anders Lee. Strome’s struggles even sent him to Bridgeport of the American Hockey League for three weeks. Strome had been invisible for most of the first half. He has briefly shown flashes of the player who scored 50 points a season ago. Lee was expected to score 30 goals this season. He was expected to pick up all of the dirty goals. He has fallen way short of those expectations with just six goals.
While the defensive play of the defensemen has been strong, their input offensively has been down. Nick Leddy went goalless for the first 38 games of the season. Leddy’s game has picked up as of late, scoring three goals in the last nine games. Two of the three goals came on the power play. Speaking of the power play, New York is tied for 18th in the league with a 17.5 percent success rate. The lack of power plays is concerning. They rank 26th with 137 chances.
The Barclays Center
There certainly have been growing pains between the Barclays Center and Islander fans. It started with the banishment of Sparky the Dragon, the debut of a new goal horn and strict rules about watching warmups by the glass. A couple of ugly incidents between Barclays security and fans. Say what you want about Barclays Center CEO Brett Yomark, but he will listen to the fans. Sparky has made a triumphant return, the goal horn heard loudly at Nassau Coliseum for years returned and fans can head down for warmups. The team’s play on their new home ice has been positive going 15-8-3 in the first half. The arena will never be ideal for hockey unless renovations are made. The team has played to 83.6 percent capacity, which ranks 26th in the league. Barclays averages 13,214 fans in 26 home games.
The Islanders have to decide what they are: a team comfortable with just making the playoffs or a team willing to make the necessary moves and gambles in order to win a Stanley Cup? Snow has assembled a pretty impressive crop of young talent (Ryan Pulock, Michael Dal Colle, Joshua Ho-Sang, Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier); does he want to mortgage some of their future for a rental forward to play alongside Tavares? Snow may be feeling the pressure with new ownership set to take over next season.
Noel Fogelman is a 5-time Emmy Winner and started his career working on the Buffalo Sabres Pre and postgame shows for the Empire Sports Network. He then went to Bristol, CT to work at ESPN on NHL2Night and its coverage of the Stanley Cup. Follow me on Twiter @thefirstnoel19