The last time the Florida Panthers visited Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, on April 24, the New York Islanders clinched their first playoff series win in 23 years. Things were looking up.
The Brooklyn crowd reached a fever pitch, bringing a playoff atmosphere fans did not think would travel well from the hallowed grounds of Uniondale’s Nassau Coliseum. Though the Islanders fell in the Eastern Conference semifinals to Tampa Bay, the prevailing thought was that this was just the beginning of an extended run of prosperity for this franchise.
Since then, the Isles have plummeted to the very bottom of the Eastern Conference standings at roughly the halfway mark of the 2016-17 regular season. And that’s with 23 of its 39 games having been played at home.
In three games since the New Year’s bye week, all losses, New York has scored a grand total of three goals as their chances at reaching the playoffs have been slipping away.
“We gotta find a way to score some goals,” said Islanders captain John Tavares, the team’s lone player named to the Metropolitan Division All-Star team. “If we had all the answers, I don’t think we’d be three goals in three games.”
“Well, how do you get back going,” asked Islanders head coach Jack Capuano, now in his seventh season at the helm.
Perhaps the answer is criticizing his players, which he proceeded to do in the press conference following Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Florida.
“There are guys obviously that will be out of the lineup the next game,” Capuano said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
That was said after he called the team’s second period the worst the team has played this season, adding that players were taken off of the ice because they were “non-factors.”
“A few of the young guys, and I’m not going to mention names, but you watch the game tonight and they were non-factors in tonight’s game,” Capuano said. “What you need to do right now in the time that you’re in this game right now, you gotta come to the rink and you’ve gotta be a difference maker. If you don’t have that mindset to be a difference maker, knowing the crucial time with games in hand and play like you played tonight, then you’re in the wrong profession as an athlete.”
Well then. Capuano was not the only one frustrated by the team’s offensive woes, but was perhaps the most overtly vocal about it.
“I wish I had the answers,” Tavares said. “There’s no question that our execution was not at a high level. And that’s gonna cause you to have to overcome that. And certainly in the couple of games prior and the games before the break, we’re generating good opportunities and had our chances, we’re just not putting in as many as we’d like.”
After finishing the regular season 10th in total goals scored last year, the Islanders are down to 15th in goals per game and 25th in power play percentage. So what the hell happened over the last eight, nine months since that triumphant Sunday evening in April?
A lack of goal scoring compounded by some puzzling personnel decisions has led to some heavy and harsh criticism of the management duo of Capuano and general manager Garth Snow.
Forwards Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen combined for 116 regular season points, second and third on the team last season behind Tavares, but left for lucrative free agent deals in Buffalo and Detroit, respectively, on July 1. Both were named to the Atlantic Division All-Star team this week, much to the dismay of Islander fans.
That same day, Snow and company replaced Okposo and Nielsen by signing Andrew Ladd to a seven-year contract and Jason Chimera to a two-year deal. That pair has combined for a total of 26 points, a severe decrease in offensive output that this team has been unable to overcome. Capuano discussed his veterans’ lack of production and if he planned to bench those players in the future.
“We signed some guys for reasons,” Capuano said. “We want to give those guys an opportunity.”
In the beginning of December, the Islanders decided to give Cal Clutterbuck an economic opportunity with a five-year, $17 million contract extension. He’s currently sixth on the team with 15 points.
Clutterbuck was one of the few veterans who spoke after the loss to the Panthers, and he said that team morale was not great after the loss.
“I think we’ve got a nothing to lose kind of attitude right now. We’re going to have to go forward,” Clutterbuck said. “You only get so many chances, so it’s up to us if we want to take that chance or let it go by.”
“You just gotta find a way to overcome it,” Tavares said, “find a way to create opportunities and put it in on those chances.”
New York is 10 points out of the playoffs heading into Thursday’s games with half a season left to get back to last year’s form. If the team continues its inept form, it would seem logical if new ownership led by Jon Ledecky finally decides to drop the axe on the management inherited from former majority owner Charles Wang.
Until then, it seems like the Islanders will be stuck with a coach and general manager who have seemingly run out of answers.
“You just try to give them confidence that offensive guys are going to try to end up putting the puck in the back of the net,” Capuano said.
Through 39 games, that just hasn’t been working for the New York Islanders, unable to replicate last year’s hope-inspiring campaign.