As the free agent frenzy slows down I just wanted to take a look at what the Islanders need to contend. Do they really need as much as they think.
Where Are We
It’s July 12th and things have quieted to a whisper on the Islander rumor front. There doesn’t seem to be an offer sheet in the works for Mitch Marner. It looks like Lou will be content with his 2018-19 roster with a few upgrades here and there.
Lou has done a good job avoiding the usual two steps back summer march the Islanders take annually in July. He has the roster back with the exceptions of Val Filppula who wanted to be back in Detroit, and Robin Lehner. Most fans, including myself, will miss Robin greatly. But Semyon Varlamov is an adequate starting goaltender and hopefully the proper pathway to Ilya Sorokin.
So What Do We Really Need
The consensus is that the Isles need a top six goal scorer. But do they? Last year’s surge from a lottery team expectation to a playoff team reality didn’t come because they added goals. In actuality they scored 38 less goals. What really hurt them was scoring 25 less power play goals. They had 58 in 2017-18 and 33 last year. Their PP went from 23% to 14%. That may have been the biggest cost when John Tavares took his blankey and went home.
The question may be, do we need a John Tavares type player to get those goals back. I’m going to say no. The important thing isn’t how many goals you score, or the amount you give up, it’s the difference between the two. It is also better to manage your resources (CAP space, prospects, draft picks) to increase your goal differential, rather than focusing on your goal production.
The Big Picture
This is a look at the regular season 5v5 scoring per 60 minutes. The Islanders were first in goals against. The two Stanley Cup finalists were second (Boston) and fifth (St. Louis). They are all three in the middle third of the league when it comes to 5v5 scoring. The Islanders are about where they need to be there. I wouldn’t spend too much to increase scoring, especially if it costs defensive responsibility.
This is most likely what kept the Islanders from winning the Metro Division last year, and advancing further in the playoffs. Their anemic power play could never get on track. Economically, though, they don’t want to spend to get to the top of this list. They really only need to be in the middle of it. There are plenty of teams in the top 10 that didn’t make the playoffs, or where out in the first round. This is not what buys you success. It definitely makes it easier, but superior defense is how teams succeed.
So Doctor, What Do We Do?
Last year the prescription was simple. Fix the penalty kill, then work on overall defense. That’s what Lou did. Almost every player he brought in killed penalties. Most fans felt nauseous when they heard names like Komarov, Filppula and Kuhnhackl. They did their job, and the addition of Robin Lehner and a superior coaching staff did the rest. They fixed the PK, and the overall defensive structure of the team. That shouldn’t be something that is messed with just to score goals.
This year the prescription is pretty much the same. Just fix the power play. But much like any remedy, you don’t want it to come with side effects that are worse than what you are fixing. Nobody wants to lower their cholesterol by ten points at the cost of “anal seepage”.
Lou has already added Jim Hiller to Barry’s coaching staff. I could see him replacing Scott Gomez behind the bench, or as an “eye in the sky” to help diagnose in game issues.
We’ve already seen some improvement when Devon Toews replaced Nick Leddy on the first unit. It was written that they avoided moving Ryan Pulock to that spot because they wanted him to focus on his 5v5 play. That should not be the case this year, and hopefully Ryan will have improved his accuracy.
Beyond that, there are some internal and external options to improve the man advantage units. Michael Dal Colle was scarcely used on the second unit, and Jordan Eberle didn’t really find his touch until later in the season.
Maybe their biggest power play problem was their zone entries. The previous year they had Mat Barzal carrying the puck and retaining possession, with John Tavares as a key distribution point. That has been lost. Both Leddy and Barzal were not good at all retaining possession after an entry. What made that worse was their face-off record with the man advantage was horrible.
Toews will help their entries. Ho-Sang could help their entries as well. Maybe letting Cizikas take PP face-offs could help, or maybe trying to sign a guy like Brian Boyle as your fourth center could do the trick.
Wrap It Up
1 Don’t spend too much money. The first priority should be to avoid CAP issues next year when you have to sign Barzal, Pulock and Toews.
2 Don’t try to do too much. We want to fix the PP, but not at the expense of superb 5v5 play.
3 Try to fix things internally. The Islanders have prospects that need to take the next step. Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle are no longer works in progress. They are no longer waiver eligible, so if they can’t stick with the Islanders they will be gone. If they can pass through waivers they probably aren’t going to be back. They need to be part of the solution. There are also marquee prospects, Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom who might surprise.
4 Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck will help the team when they are healthy, but they will make managing roster and cap concerns difficult all year. This also adds to the importance of low cost internal solutions.
5 I’d target Brian Boyle as a UFA, or a similar player with tradable assets such as Nick Leddy or any of the LH defensive prospects. Lou has to be careful here, as any term could interfere with next year’s RFA signings.