Here we are on February 9th and the 2002-03 Islanders are no closer to solving some problems today than they were back in camp, even though Peter Laviolette has settled on lines and stuck with them.
With each game it’s clear that one problem today is still the same problem they had back in September and that is finding a skilled winger with scoring and speed to play with Alexei Yashin. Every potential right wing prospect in the organization has had a look and no one has stepped in and been able to give the Isles a viable alternative that can be counted on as Yashin looks more like an ordinary player each game with little impact as he drags the puck through the perimeter and is forced into low percentage shots.
Another problem is they are risking Yashin losing what makes him a valuable offensive weapon and the idea behind trading for him to begin with. Make no mistake, confidence is critial to every player regardless of age or experience.
A by-product of Yashin’s problem is that the Isles power play looks lost most nights and can be best described as predictable and easy to read as they set up on the perimeter while fast skating teams usually shut them down if they get quality goaltending.
Another problem that cannot be hidden and just as important each night is the lack of depth from the organization on defense that is taking a toll, despite solid play.
The injury to Adrian Aucoin (with Eric Cairns out) left the team with five defenders for a few games (including journeyman Sven Butenschon) The migraine Kenny Jonsson suffered against Philadelphia forced Aucoin into a thirty plus minute game in his return, something Peter Laviolette said he did not want to risk in his first night back.
To make things even worse Roman Hamrlik was hurting in the game against Washington and the lack of a physical presence on this defense seems to be allowing opposing teams to take some liberties against the Islander defenders.
Still the overall defense has kept the team in games, but the cracks will be impossible to ignore with the demanding schedule and travel the rest of the season on a defense that also needs to score.
So far the teams depth in Bridgeport recently has produced Brandon Smith for one game in which he was immediately returned as the team decided to go with only five defenders. Ray Schultz was sent back to Bridgeport with little more than a cameo.
Jason Blake and Arron Asham:
These are the players in the roles that Czerkawski and Kip Miller were in here last year when their scoring was key in the Islanders drive to the 2001-02 playoffs.
Arron Asham is showing signs he can be a contributing player, but he is not ready to be counted on to provide the kind of offense needed to carry a first line or it’s power play at this point in his career that never saw him get this kind of opportunity in Montreal. This team is over fifty games in and Asham has not scored a goal from outside the high slot.
The best thing to come out of the Isles moving players from position to position is that the organization discovered Jason Blake on an off-wing has more net to shoot at and his speed gets him into position where he has more high quality chances and it has paid off big because he looks like the Isles most dangerous forward on a nightly basis.
The problem now is Blake for the first time in his NHL career is in a position where he must contribute goals. His missed chances against Philadelphia (on eight shots) are plays he has to finish. Fair or not, this is now the role Blake must assume for the club to have a successful stretch drive.
Weinhandl has had a falloff not only in his production that had him producing points (not goals) but where he was not having the same impact or the same chances and found himself relegated to a fourth line and a recent scratch against Philadelphia.
Like Asham, Weinhandl is only going to be able to do so much at this point in his young career, Joe Micheletti pointed out recently he is in his first year in North American and it’s more hockey than he was playing in Europe and it could take a toll on
him. In the late stages against Washington, Laviolette did give him time with Yashin.
Lucky Seven’s or Craps:?
It’s fair to say Michael Peca has had a small impact on the Islanders score sheet, however his presence and the Isles record since his return, do not lie as to what he means to this club and could quietly be the league MVP if the Isles were to get into the playoffs.
Problem is on a team like this he does have to contribute as a second line center and only he knows how his shoulder and knee are holding up nightly as the hits have remained absent from his game. Fair or not on a team with no standout first line, his offense is as critical as his defense and a lot is being asked of him and will continue to be.
Mark Parrish has been slowed by injury and looks to be playing thru it as Isbister has done for a while. Isles cannot afford him to take a night off and they cannot afford a lapse in his production that seems to happen each year.
Shawn Bates returned recently from a groin injury and had two goals (Pittsburgh, Atlanta) but with the role he is given as a second line left wing he has to produce as a second line player does and in year two with the Islanders has looked more like a third line player who is working hard without results.
Dave Scatchard and Jason Wiemer:
One of the things that have dropped off recently is the production of Dave Scatchard, who is now also in the position Jason Blake is in. He has to contribute offense to this roster and he cannot have the falloff that saw long stretches without goals last season.
Jason Wiemer has looked like a mistake for the Islanders who is likely most suited to the centers position and has just not had the impact from the gritty physical presence the Isles claimed they needed last spring on a nightly basis. On a team with offensive problems it’s a high price to have Wiemer in a role that at some point will be better filled by Raffi Torres potential as a top five draft pick.
Also there is a numbers problem when Brad Isbister returns and the Isles decide who can help best on Yashin’s left side, another area where there seems to be no long term answer. Oleg Kvasha producing fifteen points in ten games is showing some signs.
Do the Isles trade, and if so, what ?
It’s being called a buyers market, question here is what can the Islanders spend ?
Looking at the organization Mike Milbury is going to have to take on salary and be very creative in the process if he plans to move some players who are not producing. Many veterans should be available for the right lateral move.
This is where the lack of prospect depth really hurts within the organization and a hard decision may have to be made to see it thru with what they have.
There is no young defensive prospect ready to step up if one of the top three defenders were moved and that is what many opposing gm’s will be looking for because the Isles cannot offer scoring.
It’s very easy to throw out the big names of the star players and plug them next to Yashin. To do a deal you have to be able to offer something the opposition wants and the depth is not here to make a deal for a star without significantly weakening another area.
The Isles can put a Torres or DiPietro into a trade, but at this time both should be untouchable unless franchise stars on the level of Heatley, Gaborik or Joe Thornton are the return because they now must build around these players at all costs or start spending sixty million dollars on a payroll to hide the holes that may take years to fill.
The prospect base is extremely thin and the roster is mostly built to win within a few years so there is a conflict and the fans no longer want just the playoffs but the promise of a championship level
Trading the second tier talent in the system is taking a risk too, albeit not as great when you consider Justin Mapletoft is a fifth rd pick, who only plays center and has Yashin, Peca and Scatchard in front of him.
Trent Hunter (who won the accuracy shooting at the AHL all-star weekend) is an alternative, but also could help as soon as next year and again there is no depth behind these players from the upper ends of any drafts.
When it’s all done they may be best served to go with what they have or get some veteran rental for lower draft picks at the deadline, but who is to say if a rental solves anything ?
What’s ahead ?
It’s going to be rough for the Islanders no matter how they decide to go from here on. The schedule is very tough, the injury problems scoring depth, and overall team depth could push them out of a playoff spot. There will be lots of pressure from the fans and media to go for it and improve their chances and play for today, but reality is a sixth, seventh, or eighth seed and a series likely against New Jersey, Ottawa or Washington if they do make the 2002-03 playoffs. It will require a major playoff upset to advance in a better Eastern Conference than a year ago.