In what will be a frantic season, to say the least, the New York Islanders have had a relatively slow ramp-up to the campaign. Four games in 11 days can be considered their ‘pre-season’ as they gradually work themselves into game conditioning and hone their timing and precision. It’s an absolute bonus that, in those four games, they have managed to go 3-1-0.
The opener against the Rangers was a good, solid road win, as they shut down their rivals and cruised to a 3-0 first period lead that would ultimately result in a 4-0 final. The rematch two days later was an absolute role reversal, as the Islanders played, arguably, their worst game under head coach Barry Trotz in a 5-0 loss. Trotz would later say the game was ‘lost upstairs, in their heads,’ indicating the Islanders fell behind early and never mentally recovered.
Game three was a snoozer against the Boston Bruins, a classic playoff-style defensive struggle, where the Islanders didn’t generate much but got an outstanding effort via a baseball-style bat out of mid-air by J.G. Pageau for a 1-0 win.
Thursday, after concern was voiced with the team scoring only one goal in two games and not producing much offense, center Brock Nelson proclaimed, ‘The offense will get cooking’. They must have all rushed to their ovens, as Jordan Eberle’s two markers led the Islanders to a 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils at Nassau Coliseum. Sure, the middle period wasn’t convincing, as the visitors offered pushback that the Isles didn’t seem to have much answer for, but the first and third were so solid, that they can enjoy a day off Friday before resuming practice tomorrow ahead of a Sunday rematch in Newark.
So, through four games, where are we exactly? Are the Islanders just now warming up to the 2021 season after months of uncertainty and no official pre-season? Or are they the team that was decimated by the Rangers in game two and slept through a fortunate win against Boston? Likely somewhere trending towards the first, though not at the top of the summit just yet.
Barzy shooting bullets: The Islanders’ star center, signed just prior to the start of the season to a three-year deal with a significant raise, has shown some impressive signs through the first four games of taking his game to a new level. The statistics don’t show that he’s necessarily shooting more (10 in four games after 171 in 68 last season), but the eye-test shows he’s more ‘willing’ to shoot in critical situations. His two goals have been absolute laser snipes. If this trend continues, he will be almost impossible to defend. Thursday night, he also made a tremendous play on defense. You heard me, defense, when he back-checked responsibly in the first period, leading to reclaiming puck possession, which resulted in Eberle’s first goal. Talk about not sleeping on a new contract. Something we don’t see enough in today’s athletes.
Dobber is just dandy: As a 21-year old rookie, Noah Dobson has some shoes to fill this season after the departure of Devon Toews to Colorado. Using Andy Greene as a mentor and defensive partner, Dobson has been strong, despite a game two clunker that could be attributed to the total team effort rather than one individual. Three assists in the first four games, along with responsible defensive play and a smooth initial pass leading to transition offense, will keep Dobson on the upwards trajectory the team vitally needs him to be on. He may end up actually providing more offense than anyone anticipated when all is said and done.
Redundancy: Thursday’s four goal ‘outburst’ provided some subtle breathing space for the team and fans alike, but let’s face it: this isn’t a team likely to do that on an every-game basis. They are built around defense, a rock-solid Trotz system that plays ‘rope-a-dope’ many times with their opponent, bending but not breaking. It’s also a system that could be unsustainable over 56 games, forget over 82. It’s rough to play ‘playoff hockey’ every time you step on the rink. Having Ross Johnston in the lineup with Matt Martin simply doesn’t seem optimal to me.
Now, before you start, this is in no way crashing on Johnston or Martin. They are both solid individuals and unquestionable workers, true and loyal soldiers, and excellent teammates. However, in a league that has witnessed fighting drop over 65 percent in 10 years and is actually becoming less physical, this creates a redundancy in the Islanders' lineup with grinders who, being honest, have never been known to light the lamp regularly. It also hurts Pageau and Kieffer Bellows in realizing their true offensive prowess, which could benefit the bottom line.
I am not, and never have been, an NHL coach, and didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so don’t come at me with ‘You think you know more than Barry?’ No, I don’t, nor have I ever expressed any desire to believe otherwise. Merely making an observation on a team that could use more offensive punch. We still have not seen Oliver Wahlstrom, and Bellows played 10:34 Thursday night; that’s it, and he only got there because the team was up 4-1 in the third.
The difference you observe in Jack Hughes is primarily because the Devils put him out there and put him out there, even through his struggles last season. He is night and day different compared to when we last saw him. It could help everyone if the Islanders started actually developing their young players, instead of burying them in the bottom six roles with limited, or some might say ‘shielded’, ice time.
Follow Andy Graziano on Twitter: @AndyGraz_WFAN