Graziano: Why Islanders Are Sputtering At Crunch Time

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The New York Islanders, after their fifth straight loss Thursday night, 4-3 in Ottawa to the Senators, are well on their way. 

On their way to blowing a 16-3-1 start and potentially missing the playoffs, with a season that has seen more regression than it has growth.

Looking at the numbers, they are ugly across the board. Back on Nov. 21, New York had just completed a remarkable run against teams that were still getting themselves up to speed in the 2019-20 season, going 16-3-1 to bank a tremendous amount of points (83% of all possible). It was the three-game road trip to California right after that would be a harbinger of things to come.

The Islanders dropped all three on the trip and have gone 19-20-7 in those next 46 games, scoring a paltry 2.59 goals per game while allowing 2.96. The numbers, when you look at the stretch run, are even uglier.

Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot battles with Islanders center Brock Nelson in the third period on March 5, 2020, at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, Ontario.    Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY Images

This is the time when you need to be playing your best hockey. This is when you are to be preparing for a playoff-style battle every night as teams get desperate to cement their place in the postseason. It’s also the time when you need to defeat teams behind you in the standings, ones that have no playoff berth to fight for. The Islanders have not been willing to pay the price to do any of it.

A 7-9-4 record over their past 20 games (2.6 goals per game, 3.15 goals against per game) and 2-7-2 over their past 11 (1.82 vs 3.09) are not the direction you need to be driving in. Lose to the red-hot New York Rangers? Stings, but OK, they’re playing really well. Lose to the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, dominated even? OK, we got a point. Lose to the big, bad Boston Bruins, who have always dominated New York? OK, I get it. But dropping back-to-back games to the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators by a combined score of 10-5? Unacceptable. 

There were a couple of things that I opined on in which my belief in them has grown stronger. One, president/general manager Lou Lamoriello is a hockey legend and was at the forefront of those Stanley Cup-winning teams in New Jersey. But that was 20 years ago. Lamoriello has not been a viable general manager, in my opinion, in quite some time, still seemingly living in the past and allowing old ways to dictate current approaches. 

What general manager, in today’s game, not named Peter Chiarelli gives Leo Komarov a four-year deal with a modified no-trade clause? What GM turns his back on a Vezina trophy finalist, who really wanted to stay, to sign a goaltender with the sole intention of bringing another one over from Russia, one who has not even 100% committed to joining your club? Not to mention, locking said goaltender up to a four-year deal worth $20 million? Oh, and another modified no-trade clause?

Word is strong on the street, via Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and The Athletic’s Michael Russo, that Lamoriello was considering moving Kieffer Bellows in a deal to Minnesota to get Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, which would have been an unmitigated disaster. Old ways dictating current approaches, right? What if Lamoriello’s approach to contractual bonuses cost him Artemi Panarin? I’ve heard whispers on that from several league sources. 

Lamoriello is a tremendous asset to the organization, one who should sit at the top of the mountain, educating everyone on how to be professional and respected. Doesn’t make him a good general manager, though.

Two, Barry Trotz knows what kind of team he has, the types of players he has been given by the general manger. And he knows he must play a playoff-style game for 82 contests just to qualify for the playoffs. After his team was swept by the faster, younger Carolina Hurricanes in the second round of last year’s playoffs, Trotz called for more offense. He never got it. At the trade deadline this season, he got a very useful, versatile third-line center, but one who doesn’t move the needle offensively. That type of play night in and night out has worn the Islanders out. Quickly. Much more quickly than even I had anticipated or feared. They don’t look like they are having any fun playing a game that, at the end of the day, needs to be. 

Josh Bailey has been a disaster, a turnover machine of epic proportions. Brock Nelson has disappeared again. Anthony Beauvillier is showing more inconsistency in his fourth season. Mathew Barzal has been the Islanders’ only true offensive threat, but he’s showing in the past 10 games or so some tendencies to float in his defensive responsibilities. Jordan Eberle has fallen down production-wise (only 34 goals over the past two seasons). Scott Mayfield has regressed defensively. Devon Toews looks exhausted. The goaltending has not been … good.

Sure, injuries have played their part. And they have been freaky ones for sure. Three skate cuts (Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, Johnny Boychuk) and a pregame blown Achilles from a game of two-touch (Adam Pelech). But every team faces adversity. They all face injuries. They all get tired and worn down. To use those is to just use excuses.

The Islanders’ future looks a little murky, too. Sure, the salary cap is projected to rise to between $84 million and $88 million next season, but New York already has $71 million of that committed. Barzal, Ryan Pulock and Toews are all in need of new deals this summer as restricted free agents. You’ll need another goaltender. You don’t have first- or second-round draft picks to add as trade capital.

The “talent” in Bridgeport is just not developing either under Brent Thompson, who continues to amaze with the fact he has been able to hold onto his current position. How can Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom be expected to come up and produce if they can’t produce at the AHL level? I was hoping Bellows would be the answer and stick around for a while, especially after his two-goal performance, but once again, there he was, on the Bridgeport shuttle. Why exactly? 

Look, the season isn’t over until it’s Game 83 and you’re not playing in it. The Islanders, as of today, are still in a playoff spot with about a 60% chance of grabbing it. But the way they’ve played over the past 11 games -- heck, 46 games -- they would be an easy opponent in the first round. That’s not being pessimistic, its being realistic based on the tried and true eye test. No need for analytics here. 

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN.