Hopefully, the Islanders will actually fall short of the 300 goals against mark. (There’s still one game left though, and 7 GA is not completely out of the question.)
The thing is, in order to truly evaluate players this season, we have to keep this fact in the back of our minds. The Islanders didn’t just give up the most goals in the NHL this season, they’ve given up the most in years. Approaching 300 goals against is quite an accomplishment in this NHL day and age. The last teams to actually make it to 300 were the 2006-07 Flyers, and the Penguins and Capitals the year prior. The last Islander team to give up 300 was the illustrious 95-96 team.
Those teams were absolutely awful. Most of them finished below 60 points on the season and wound up with top draft picks for their efforts.
The 2017-2018 Islanders, however, have 78 points. They’re much closer to a .500 team based on the odd NHL points system than any of those other teams. They’ve scored the 8th-most goals in the league. They’re not untalented, they are simply really, really, easy to score against.
That makes it difficult to evaluate the individual numbers. Yes, Tavares, Lee and Bailey are putting together a great season, Eberle has been more than we expected, and Barzal is doing things that only the most rarefied rookies have ever done. Guys are scoring at career-high levels across the lineup, all the while the team can’t stop anyone.
Is it the defense? Has the goalies been pretty bad? Is it the system?
That’s the hard part of analyzing the team’s season. They were so bad we don’t know where the line between crappy defense, bad goaltending and crummy backchecking by the forwards begins and ends. It’s all of those things!
But, here’s my question. How much of the offensive production do we need to be skeptical about precisely because this team didn’t bother with playing much defense?
Earlier in the year, I started to look at the Islanders like the old Loyola Marymount college basketball teams. Their “strategy” seemed to be “We’re going to go out and score 100+ points, you have to keep up with that pace”. There wasn’t a lot of defense, or clock management, etc. At times I honestly thought the Isles strategy might be “Let them shoot so we can get the puck back that way”. I don’t have any other explanation for giving up 50 shots on goal over and over.
So, if the Islanders system required them to actually limit shots against, focus more on possession, etc. would the top two lines have still produced at that rate?
We may never know.
What we do know, is that those top two lines produced at a fabulous rate, and everything else about this team was, generally, abysmal.
So where do we go from here?
Well answer number one depends on John Tavares. He let this linger all season and didn’t really say anything one way or the other about his impending free agency. That’s his right, and it’s his right if he wants to sign elsewhere come July 1. It’s also our right as fans to hate him if/when that happens. I have zero qualms about any of that.
The second part of the answer will come in goal. Jaroslav Halak is also a UFA. I don’t see a lot of fans clamoring for him to be brought back. That’s understandable given the way this season has gone. But the Islanders need a goaltender. If they go into next season with Greiss and Gibson, look out. How they get a quality starter though, is an open question. There’s no sure-fire free agent to go after. It’s going to require making a deal.
Defense kind of looks the same way. There are a lot of questions back there. Is deHaan going to stay healthy or do they let him leave via free agency? How well will Boychuk hold up as he gets older? Will Hickey be back? What options are out there to improve the defense? What would it take to trade for a top pair defensemen? Clearly, Nick Leddy can’t play against the top lines, someone needs to.
Lastly, what about those 3-4 lines? There was not a lot of quality hockey going on there. How many of those players have any trade value?
As I said though, this all starts with Tavares, and his salary. If he leaves, the Isles have plenty of cap space to go after some serious upgrades in other areas, and I’d expect a very different looking team next year. If he comes back, they have less cap space, but still flexibility to make some changes through trades and incoming prospects.
Either way, this team needs to look different. What’s on the ice, behind the bench and in the front office didn’t work this year. You can’t swap out a couple of 3rd liners and expect that it’ll be much different next year.