On Feb. 15, the New York Islanders were three points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, firmly in the playoff race with the homestretch representing their chance to return to the dance after narrowly missing out last season. And that night, the Islanders skated into a contest against the rival New York Rangers and picked up a shutout victory to move within one point of a playoff berth. The very next day, the Islanders came through again, this time shutting out the Carolina Hurricanes and leapfrogging them in the process to win their way back into a wild-card spot.
But anyone who has paid attention to the goings on in Brooklyn over the past two-plus weeks knows where this story is headed. The Islanders’ two-game shutout streak was snapped and New York was beaten their next time out. And one loss was followed by another, which was followed by another, which was followed by another and so on and so forth. That led to last night’s tilt against the Edmonton Oilers, a chance for the Islanders to get back on track against a team that has been tailspinning all season long, but New York watched a win slip away in the shootout and pushed their losing streak to eight games.
And while there’s no such thing as a well-timed eight-game losing skid, the Islanders’ recent struggles may be the textbook definition of an ill-timed slide. Over the past two weeks, New York has fallen further and further out of the wild-card race, first by a single point, then by a few and eventually to where they sit now: seven points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets with not a single game in hand.
Truth be told, though, we might've been able to see this coming because the sad reality is there hasn’t really been all that much for the Islanders to hang their hat on for the better part of half a season. Some might suggest the offense, but after the hot start to the campaign, the attack has cooled significantly. Statistically since Dec. 1, New York’s offense has been no more than mediocre, sitting in a tie for 12th in the league with 126 goals in 44 games but operating at slightly below the NHL average of 2.88 goals per game. And that is somewhat disastrous given the state of the Islanders defensively.
Since the beginning of December, there aren’t many teams, and certainly not any in the wild-card races, that have performed so poorly in many of the key advanced statistical categories. The Islanders have the league’s second-worst 5-on-5 possession rate, a Corsi for percentage of 46.1, across their past 44 games, and that’s only the beginning of their woes. No team has had a worse shots for percentage since Dec. 1 than the Islanders’ 45.2 rate, no team has given up a greater percentage of high-danger chances and only the lottery-destined Vancouver Canucks have a worse scoring chances for percentage than New York. The kicker there, though, is that the Islanders actually give up more chances against by a wide margin — three more against than any other team per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 action.
All these defensive deficiencies are things the Islanders were able to outrun in the early part of the season thanks to their high-powered offense. Now, however, it seems the mistakes are coming at such a rate that even prime-aged Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier wouldn’t be able to help New York dig themselves out of the holes. And speaking of Bossy and Trottier, two of the franchise’s legendary forwards, one has to wonder what kind of bearing this end-of-season slide will have on another could-be Islanders legend, John Tavares.
As of yet, there’s no indication as to what direction Tavares is headed as he approaches unrestricted free agency, but New York’s dive down the standings certainly can’t be helping the Islanders’ chances of retaining the star center. Yes, Tavares has other connections to the Islanders and New York faithful will point to a new arena as one aspect that could aid in the team’s bid to keep their captain. Some will point to the re-signing of Josh Bailey, and others yet — and the case has been made here before — will suggest that Mathew Barzal’s emergence as a legitimate second-line scoring center gives Tavares the chance to be a part of a killer 1-2 punch down the middle, one that has potential for greatness.
There will even be the inevitable comparisons to the free agency saga that surrounded Steven Stamkos, one that ended with the Tampa Bay Lightning retaining their young stud captain. But Stamkos was returning to a team that had been to two consecutive Eastern Conference finals with a Stanley Cup final appearance under his belt. He was signing on to remain with a team that was locked and loaded for multiple shots at a championship and surrounded by a deep supporting cast. His final games with the Lightning before he headed into the final days of his contract saw him skate out against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. He was close enough to glory that he could taste it.
Compare that to Tavares, who, according to Newsday’s Neil Best, said in the midst of this losing streak that, “Obviously, this isn’t a whole lot of fun right now.” And when the team, despite the play of Barzal and Bailey, has accumulated the fourth-fewest points since Dec. 1, hasn’t shown signs of life in any of the advanced statistical areas and has a prospect pool that’s fairly average, what indication is there that things are going to get a whole lot more fun in the near future?
Of course, making the playoffs could help move the needle further in the Islanders’ favor when it comes to Tavares. Maybe one berth in the post-season, and one coming at just the right time, would be enough to convince him New York is the place to be. Unfortunately, according to SportsClubStats, the Islanders’ hopes of actually making it to the dance are about 2.2 percent thanks to this recent losing skid. And if they miss out on the post-season for the second consecutive season, the likelihood they retain Tavares might not be all that much greater.
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