The New York Islanders have had a fine run of play lately, going 5-1-1 in their last seven games and settling themselves in fourth place in the super competitive East division. The Boston Bruins are showing themselves to be top of the class currently (10-3-2), the Philadelphia Flyers (8-3-3) and Washington Capitals (8-4-3) have stayed close on their heels, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who defeated the Islanders 4-1 Thursday, are two points back of New York with a game in hand.
With more than 25 percent of the season now complete, we have a clearer picture of who the Islanders are. Yes, they have scored 20 goals in their past seven games (2.86 per game), but most nights, this is a team that will struggle to generate consistent offensive pressure and has to rely on solid defense, leading to counter attack chances. Take Thursday, for example: when was the last time New York was down 2-0 after two and you, personally, felt confident they would come back to at least tie the game? Be honest. It’s okay.
That is not to say the Islanders can’t win, because we have all witnessed they most certainly can. What it does say, however, is that their path to victory can be exhausting and downright plodding. You are going to have nights like you had Thursday, where you burn the game tape and move forward to the next one. What you also need is to have three consistent offensive lines generating offense. That is where we come full stop.
Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey continue to appear lost most nights, and that is the one telling symptom of the Islanders’ offensive disease. Head coach Barry Trotz doesn’t need Nelson and Bailey to simply be better; he needs them to be significantly better.
Nelson broke through the past two years, collecting 25 and 26 goals while surpassing the 50-point mark for the first time in his career. Last season, he was the Islanders’ best two-way center and there was no argument. This year, he has zero goals at even strength, with all four of his tallies coming on the power play. Turnovers have become commonplace, the latest taking place Thursday when he put the puck neatly on the stick of Kasperi Kapanen, which led to Pittsburgh’s first goal in the first period. It has become a nightly highlight reel of egregious defensive efforts by Nelson.
Bailey has struggled at both ends of the rink as well in many games. After three straight 50-point seasons, and a 2019-20 where he was well on his way to a fourth straight, Bailey has but one goal in 16 games. Sure, he has eight assists (five of which have come in the past three games), but half have come on the power play, meaning he has 1-4-5 at even strength in 16 games.
Mathew Barzal can’t be the only driver of the even strength bus for New York; it simply makes them too easy to defend. But, there he is, waiting for players like Nelson and Bailey to snap out of their funk and start chipping in when the Islanders aren’t up a man. 5v5 success is the driver to everything the Islanders accomplished last year in the bubble tournament. You can’t rely on power plays in the playoffs, especially when more fouls are simply ignored and not called.
Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey are solid hockey players. They can play, and have offensive success, in this system. That isn't an opinion, they have proven it over several years. We all knew this season would be different, and present strange challenges, but nobody ever envisioned two of the players Trotz most relies on to simply not get the engines even started to this point, forget revved up. Trotz talks about ‘trust’ and how important it is with his veteran players. It’s clear that he won’t be sitting Nelson or Bailey anytime soon.
Oliver Wahlstrom has come in and looked solid. Michael Dal Colle has done a fine job, Kieffer Bellows not so much. If the Islanders can get Nelson and Bailey going, this team can easily replicate its success of last season’s bubble. If they can’t, well, you know the drill.
Follow Andy Graziano on Twitter: @AndyGraz_WFAN