Cliff Welch/Icon SMI)
The New York Islanders are on pace to miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, the second longest playoff drought in organization history and longest since they failed to qualify for the post season seven years in a row between 1994 and 2001.
There are many reasons for a fifth consecutive losing season, the most popular reason being injuries. The Isles have been ravaged by injuries over the past several seasons, and this year has been no exception, as they have missed over 240 man-games to injury, with goaltenders Evgeni Nabakov, Al Montoya, and Rick Dipietro combining for almost 100 alone.
Still, injuries to key players can only go so far to excuse a team’s futility. The division rival Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers have experienced well north of 300 man games lost to injury this season, and both have already clinched a playoff berth.
The problem with the Islanders this season has been quite simple – they’ve struggled to score goals. They’ve struggled so much that they are the bottom-ranked team in the league in five-on-five situations. There is plenty of blame to pass around for the Islanders lack of even-strength scoring, from the down year sniper Michael Grabner is having to a lackluster rookie season by Nino Niederreiter. But the fact remains that the Islanders simply do not have the depth at forward to be an effective team offensively. Their top line of Matt Moulson, John Tavares, and P.A. Parenteau is a potent one, capable of winning a game for their team single-handedly. But beyond those three there isn’t much in the way of consistent offensive threats.
Plenty of blame can be leveled towards Grabner and Kyle Okposo, who have played on the Islanders second line for much of the season. Both have dramatically underperformed this year, combining for 33 goals, which is one off what Grabner personally produced in 2010-11.
Center Frans Nielsen has been the Islanders fourth-best forward this season, playing almost exclusively on the second-line between Grabner and Okposo, but his skill-set, not to mention his middling offensive totals (15 goals, 24 assists), suggest he is better suited as a third line shutdown center.
Hope should not be lost for the Islanders, however. While they may not make the playoffs in 2011-12, their roster for next season should look much different, and in many respects much improved, at least from an offensive talent standpoint. The biggest improvement would come in the form of center Ryan Strome. A speedy forward taken fifth overall in the 2011 draft, Strome should fill the second line center spot for the Isles and could in theory complement wingers Grabner and Okposo. Another huge addition could be defenseman Calvin de Haan, a puck-moving defenseman who can dramatically help a poor Islanders transition game.
Atlantic Division Notes
New Jersey Devils – The Devils host the Chicago Blackhawks tonight in their first meeting of the season. New Jersey, who is 1-3-1 in their last five games and has struggled mightily offensively and defensively, will be facing a red-hot Blackhawks team that has won nine of their last 12 despite playing over a month without captain Jonathan Toews.
New York Islanders – Winger Nino Niederreiter has been a healthy scratch lately in what has been a difficult season for the first-year pro. The fifth overall selection of the 2010 NHL Draft, Niederreiter has only one goal in 49 games this season, playing mostly in the bottom-six.
New York Rangers – Center Brad Richards has been red-hot over the last month, managing 19 points in his last 16 games. If the Rangers win two of their three games this week, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist could reach the 250 win marker.
Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers were the only team in the division to have played a game last night, losing to the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-3. Bolts forward Ryan Malone opened the scoring at 8:08 of the first period with a short-handed goal, and the Flyers played from behind the rest of the way. The Flyers actually had 38 shots on net, though practically all of them came from easy to defend angles as the Lightning successfully held the Flyers to the perimeter for much of the game.
Pittsburgh Penguins – The Penguins recalled defensemen Simon Despres and Brian Strait from the AHL last night. One of them will definitely fill in for the injured Ben Lovejoy, who was actually filling in for the injured Matt Niskanen. But another could be filling in for defenseman Kris Letang who may also have been injured Sunday night, as he left the ice on two separate occasions.