Saturday, January 9, 2016

Tavares Shoulders Blame for Islanders Poor Play but Larger Problems Persist

The Islanders haven't exactly been a team in a tailspin, but after losing seven out of their last eleven games, they are barely protecting a playoff slot and look to be in danger of further failure. On Saturday they were lit up by the Flyers 4-0, and they've now lost three of their last four games by three goals or more.

Much can be blamed on the fact that the Islanders were without defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Travis Hamonic on Saturday, but the bigger issue might be that the team played like a team with an excuse for losing rather than a hunger to prove that it could handle the adversity of having two young blueliners eating mega minutes. New York was outshot 31-20 by the Flyers and they were lucky to get out the first period without a big deficit. That changed quickly in the second period as the Flyers pumped in two quick goals while the Islanders never mustered any type of a push to get back in it.

In the past few seasons the Islanders have emerged as one of the NHL's top puck possession teams and their well-balanced attack, coupled with above average goaltending has made them virtually slump-proof. But without Boychuk for at least another month, the onus will be on the forwards to step up and provide a spark.

The Islanders were fourth in the NHL in Corsi last season. This season they've slipped to 17th. The roster is virtually unchanged from last year (though the loss of puck-moving defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky hurts a bit), so it's hard to pinpoint the root of the Isles woes.

Isles' captain John Tavares pinned the blame on himself after Saturday's loss, like a true captain.

“The last two games it’s been really disappointing the way we’ve started and a lot of that’s my fault,” the captain said. “Being the leader of the team I’ve got to make sure we’re ready to play and I’ve got to be better as well. A lot of that blame falls on my shoulders. Putting ourselves behind by two goals, it takes a lot of energy to work to get back into games and we didn’t have it today.”

Part of what makes the Islanders so frustrating is that they have yet to find wingers that truly complement Tavares' skillset. The guy can stickhandle his way out of a phone booth and he's got eyes in the back of his head, but when he's on the ice it really doesn't feel like his line is putting up first-line type of dominance. Coach Jack Capuano recently paired Tavares with Anders Lee and Josh Bailey and things seemed to click for a few games. But lately they've fizzled. Tavares was a minus-2 today and has been a minus-4 with just two points in his last five games.

Making matters worse, the Islanders secondary scoring has dried up a bit of late. With the Islanders barely clinging to a playoff spot, it feels like the team could go in different directions. Should they look to be sellers at the deadline in an attempt to find some help for Tavares? Should they look to get involved on the Jonathan Drouin sweepstakes? Should they think about packaging up soon to be free agent Kyle Okposo and soon to be traded Travis Hamonic and pull a blockbuster?

It may sound rash, but the Isles need to realize that they have a generational talent in Tavares. He's in his prime right now, and locked up contractually. But he won't be forever. Should New York really be playing things conservatively from a trading perspective with a team that appears to be headed for a first-round playoff exit at best? Or should G.M. Garth Snow get back on the horse that he abandoned after the Thomas Vanek trade and look to do (smartly) what he sough to do then: Take this team to the next level.