The New York Islanders have without a doubt been the most quiet playoff contender through the first half of the NHL season. When considering them, I’m reminded of a classic George Costanza line he used to describe his would-be protégé, Steven Koren: “His GPA is a solid 2.0! Right in that meaty part of the curve—not showing off, not falling behind.”
That’s been the story so far: just walking the line, flying under the radar. When you zoom out and take a look at the whole league and its various dramas, you’re likely not talking or even thinking about the Isles.
They’re a decent but not great possession team (50.2 even strength score adjusted Corsi For %; 14th in the NHL). There’s not a ton of luck to their game (100.6 even strength score adjusted PDO; 10th in the NHL). They’re a pretty balanced team on the scoresheet, too (+4 even strength score adjusted goals for differential).
Heck, they’re even 5-5-0 in their last 10, but wins like Tuesday night’s 5-2 romp over the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets won’t be as easy to come by.
The second half of the NHL season is a much different beast than its tamer, first half counterpart. The Isles currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division, good for a playoff spot. Far be it for us to say they’ll fall out of that spot by the end of the season. They’ve done well to not have a ton of drama surrounding them but that could easily change down the stretch. There are a few issues that could certainly turn the tide against this team and some factors that are worth keeping an eye on:
Travis Hamonic’s Injury: While the chances of Hamonic being traded (as per his request) by the Islanders during the season is looking more and more remote, the fractured foot that has him out for at least the next 10 days will likely hurt the team's transition game. He’s missed two games so far and the Isles have gone 1-1. Yes, it’s an incredibly small sample size, but New York is a better possession team with Hamonic in the lineup. Between now and February, when he’s expected to return, the Islanders will play six games, with the rival Rangers (1/14) and Flyers (1/23) in the mix along with the surprisingly tough Red Wings (1/25). Weathering the storm would surely be easier if mainstay defenseman Johnny Boychuk (shoulder) wasn’t on IR, too. Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield have been called up to help hold the fort, but they’re works in progress, not workhorse pillars like Hamonic and Boychuk.
John Tavares’s off-year: Every team would like to have a Hart Trophy-caliber center who is capable of putting up 30 points through 40 games, but there is cause for concern when that center is the face of your franchise, your biggest offensive weapon, and capable of much more. Tavares nearly won the scoring title last season, but his score adjusted even-strength points per 60 minutes is currently the second lowest of his career (1.86), after his rookie campaign, and he’s scored all of one goal so far in January. His inconsistency, possibly fueled by the aftereffects of a mysteriously draining illness he suffered early in the season and the fact that he has had seven different linemates so far, is a concern. There are a lot of components elite teams need to make a playoff run and high-end offensive output is a must have. Can the captain get going when it matters most?
Kyle Okposo’s contract concerns: Let’s call Okposo’s return from a scary eye injury last season one of the blessings for the Islanders. He is currently leading the team in scoring but he will become an unrestricted free agent after this season and has yet to be locked up. At 27, Okposo is entering his prime and he’ll command a lot more than the $2.8 million AAV he’s under contract for now. He recently told ESPN’s Scott Burnside that his contract status is “definitely” on his mind but that he’s “OK with where things are at.”
Okposo’s recovery and performance, especially with the dip in Tavares’s production, have been godsends. The concern for management will come towards the Feb. 29 trade deadline: Are they willing to add a few pieces and go for it this season with Okposo? Or will they hold off on trying to take a run at the Cup and see if they can get some value back for him in the form of a few picks and prospects? Simply put, it’s hard to imagine New York making a serious run without him.
Stability in the net: Another blessing. For the first time since the Chris Osgood-Garth Snow tandem of 2002-03 (a playoff season), the Isles have two goalkeepers—Jaroslav Halak (22 games played) and Thomas Greiss (21)—who are capable of stopping a losing skid or carrying the team if one goes down for a while. Greiss, a July free agent signing, played admirably in Halak’s absence due to an upper body injury in late December. During the stretch drive, coach Jack Capuano can go with either and not have to worry about the team’s confidence suffering. While Halak has Greiss beat in terms of experience, Greiss has the statistical edge this season, particularly in score adjusted even strength high-danger save percentage (.863 to Halak’s .837). That number puts him sixth in the NHL among netminders who have played at least 900 minutes. But the big question will be answered in late April or beyond: Is the Isles' netminding championship quality?
Back and forth: The move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn hasn’t exactly been smooth. Attendance has dropped and the atmosphere in their new digs is not what it used to be at Nassau Coliseum. During the first half of the season, the Isles grew tired of having to commute from their homes on Long Island to their game day morning skates in Brooklyn and then spend the rest of the day in a hotel, so the team moved the practices back to Long Island last week. It’s a problem that looks like it has been fixed but having a full, raucous building (other than when the Rangers are visiting) to play in each night is something the team may truly miss. It’s not something that can be easily quantified in the win-loss column, sure. But for a young team that is looking for inspiration during a late-season run, it certainly doesn’t help to look up at sections of empty seats. In all, just one more factor during a season of adjustment for a squad that will fully reveal itself as we head for mid-April and playoffs.