The Islanders have 15 regular season games remaining before the playoffs. The Metro, and the Eastern conference are too tight to really narrow down an opponent at this point. So let’s look at how the team might best improve themselves for the road ahead.Embed from Getty Images
The Power Play
This has been the achilles heel of the team all year. They are currently operating at 15.63%. That’s more than 4% below the NHL average. There is too much talent on this team to have such an anemic power play.
Power Play Problems
Nick Leddy might be the worst power play point in the league. He seems to be on the first power play unit solely for zone entries. I’m not really sure why you need your top two centers and a speedy one dimensional defenseman on your first power play unit for zone entries. The Islanders have two other defensmen who can handle zone entries. Either Ryan Pulock or Devon Toews should be able to handle that responsibility. Plus, they both have much better shots, and distribute the puck with much less hesitation.
Creativity is seriously lacking. The Islanders have one of the more dynamic puck moving and playmaking centers in Mat Barzal. Once possession has been established in the offensive zone his ability to orbit the zone is neutralized. Nothing is gained by circling the perimeter. Passing the puck accomplishes the same thing much faster. There needs to be more movement north and south between the three middle options. This would create more and clearer passing lanes through the “Royal Road“. It also offers more options to more skilled passers. This is another reason for removing Leddy from the first unit. They could have three primary shooting targets (Pulock, Nelson and Lee) with two distribution hubs (Toews and Barzal) if they’d just give up their tired love affair with Nick Leddy.
The second unit could use a boost. If you remove Toews and Pulock from the second power play unit it will need some “umph”. They will probably still employ the 1-3-1 style as they have in the past. The two units could have very similar features, regardless of players’ position.
Barzal and Filppula would be my two low distribution points. Pulock and Eberle would share the RH shot on the LW spots for each unit. Lee and Ladd would be the net front guys, with Nelson and DalColle on the RW. The high D would be Toews on the first unit, and… Thomas Hickey on the second.
If this strategy was deployed each piece would be interchangeable between the units. That could serve as a positive in a long series should injuries arise, or just to reward a hot hand. Sometimes just putting a different body out there confuses a defender who may rely on tendencies.Embed from Getty Images
The season can really be broken down into three slices for a playoff team. The first twenty games or so a coach will try to find the best 23 to ride for the meat of the season. The next forty he lets those players do their best to show they deserve their playing time. The last 20 he either has to ride those 23, or use whatever he’s learned in those 60 games to put together his best nightly lineup for the playoff push. I think that’s where we are now.
Michael Dal Colle has earned some trust, and may offer some offensive upside over Matt Martin. Physical play does not diminish at crunch time, but the ability to find time and space is more sorely needed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Martin be a healthy scratch in more than 5 of the last 15.
Tom Kuhnhackl over Cal Clutterbuck. There is no denying that Cal is a big part of the success of the “best fourth line in hovkey”. There’s also no denying that he is a step slower the past few years, and it is hurting what could be one of the more productive middle six lines in the league. Any roster change has to be done in respect to special teams. With that in mind we have seen Cizikas paired with Kuhnhackl a little more often as Clutterbuck has been scratched. I think this is a way for Trotz to give himself more roster flexibility going forward.
They have to create a real offensively threatening first line. All year we have seen Mat Barzal switch linemates. There have been the “Killer B’s” (Beauvillier and Bailey) and last year’s highly successful (Beauvillier and Eberle) and currently (Beauvillier and Dal Colle). He’s even played with Ladd and Komarov some. All the while Nelson has been pulling the heavy weight as the number one center.
It’s time to try a true number one line. One that can play solid 200 foot hockey, with a puck mover and distributor, and three forwards who can shoot the puck. There has been a reluctance to deploy Lee, Nelson and Barzal on one line because the Islanders have been short a showcase center since that other guy left. Just like Leddy is not a first power play quarterback, Mat Barzal is not a top line center in the NHL just yet. But he could be the right wing for the most dynamic line going into the 2018-19 playoff season. It’s about time we see if that can build some chemistry.
Roster flexibility is always a good thing. The two big surprises are obviously swapping Bailey and Barzal positionally, and making Leddy and Hickey interchangeable.
Let’s face it, Bailey takes the important draws, and plays the defensive role when with Barzal anyway. A RW can be rather effective as the puck mover and distributor. If you don’t believe that, please stop asking for the Islanders to promote Josh Ho-Sang. He’s never going to be a center.
I doubt we’ll see a full time move from Leddy to Hickey. More subtly I think the change will be moving Hickey in for Pelech. The roles should change on special teams. Hickey can handle Pelech’s PK minutes, and add to the second PP unit. Hopefully the addition of Toews and Pulock to the first unit will make folks forget about Leddy. Leddy adds little to the PK, so if you then move Pelech back in, you improve all three phases of the game.
The long term gain there is that you might be able to get a late first rounder for Leddy in June. The Islanders now have Toews, Pelech, Hickey, Aho, Wotherspoon and Vande Sompel to play the left side. That $5.5M might come in handy if they are going to sign all of their UFAs and shop for somebody like Duchene in July.
Mat Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Michael Dal Colle, Adam Pelech and Devon Toews have zero NHL playoff experience and Ryan Pulock was mostly a healthy scratch in 2015-16. There will be some learning to do. But what better time to give these kids some experience. This is a season that nobody expected anybody to be adding to their playoff resumes.
Upsetting the apple cart. This roster, flawed as it may be, has been good enough to earn first place in the Metro division. Though I understand that, every “playoff” team in the east is playing better in the second half. The Islanders have hit a bit of a lull over the past few weeks. One way out of the lull is by getting back on the horse and playing through it. Another way is to get on a fresh horse. The benefit of the fresh horse is that it will give you a good look into what you have for next year. It may also surprise your opponents. It’s a gamble.
What’s In Store
The Islanders have 15 games left. Only four of them are against teams that are out of playoff hopes. Six if you include the Flyers who are hanging by the thinnest of threads. Let’s say there are nine games left that will test their ability to compete against playoff competition.
Their main focus will be to win the Metro Division. That accomplishment comes with home team advantage in the first two rounds. Something they haven’t enjoyed in two decades. To accomplish this they will either need to win out, or they will need some help. They only have one gaim remaining with their closest rivals, the Washington Capitals. That is the last game of the season, and could very likely be the first game of the playoffs.
They do have some matchups with possible first round opponents:
(03/11/19) (03/26/19) Columbus. After shoving all their chips into the center of the table the Blue Jackets have been somewhat disappointing. If they lose the second game of thier back to back to Pittsburgh they would really need Montreal to help them out if they want back into the race.
(03/14/19) (03/21/19) Montreal. These two games might mean more to Columbus and Montreal respectively than they do the Islanders. But they will both be stern playoff tests as they are both battling for their playoff lives.
(04/01/19) Toronto. If Toronto has fallen to the Wild Card spot by this time, this game will be way more important to them, than to the Islanders. They should be preparing for a tough first round with the Bruins.
(04/06/19) Washington. There are a few ways this could happen. The idea that either Pittsburgh or Carolina would pass both teams to win the Metro is highly unlikely (but I’m knocking on my wooden desk, just in case), but it is possible.
Our most likely first round opponent is the team currently in that position. The Carolina Hurricanes. They would earn that honor by being the top wild card team. If Washington wins the Metro, they could also finish third and be our first round opponent. Pittsburgh could also do either. We have no games remaining with either team.
What To Look Forward To
Hopefully over the next 15 games Barry Trotz and his staff will explore some of these ideas. They may not all work. Maybe none of them will. Some of them may even cause damage to the team’s confidence. But they will keep me from screaming at the TV… especially when I see Nick Leddy continually fumble the puck on the point during an important power play.