What Is Wrong with the New York Islanders? Can It Be Fixed?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistDecember 6, 2013

Nov 29, 2013; Uniondale, NY, USA; New York Islanders goalie Kevin Poulin (60) makes a save on a shot by Detroit Red Wings left wing Tomas Tatar (not pictured) in front of Detroit Red Wings left wing Drew Miller (20) and Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic (3) and Islanders center John Tavares (91) during the first period of a game at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It may not have been the best of times, but for a brief moment at least, it wasn’t the worst of them.

A year ago, the New York Islanders finally looked like they were climbing out of irrelevance. Five seasons outside the playoffs came to an end in the spring of 2013, when New York faced off against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and looked extremely competitive in a six-game series.

Today, the Islanders have 21 points in 29 games, tying them with Florida for 28th in the NHL ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres. Are the Islanders sliding back into the dark? Did they ever really leave it?

To answer that question, let’s start with a quick look at some basic numbers: goals for and against. The following data comes from NHL.com, and to make it easily comparable, I’ve projected the totals in all three cases over an 82-game season:

New York Islanders goal differential, 2011-present

We see relatively small fluctuations downward in terms of goals for at both even strength and on the power play. There’s a bigger jump in goals against and a massive jump in goals against on the penalty kill (with the latter representing almost half of the total drop in goal differential for the Islanders).

Let’s start where the bleeding’s worst. Here are some basic numbers for the Isles’ penalty kill:

New York Islanders four-on-five defence, 2011-present

If anything, New York has done a better job of limiting shots against in four-on-five situations than they have the last few years. The problem is the goaltending, which has been almost unfathomably bad. Evgeni Nabokov hasn’t been very good—he has a 0.797 save percentage with the team shorthanded—and he’s been significantly better than Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson.

Is goaltending similarly the problem at even strength? Yes and no:

New York Islanders five-on-five defence, 2011-present

The Islanders have had awful goaltending for years now. Nabokov has had good points, but even when he was fine, the backups were awful; the last time there was a decent tandem was 2009-10 when Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron provided the goaltending.

So, yes, the goaltending is bad (and Garth Snow’s apparent contentment with it is inexcusable), but that’s not the big difference between this season and last season. Shots against have spiked, but (as we’ll see in a moment) there are other factors to consider there.

Let’s look at the five-on-five scoring:

New York Islanders five-on-five scoring, 2011-present

We see a small drop in shot totals, and the shooting percentage has fallen below the NHL average (generally right around 8.0 percent for five-on-five) for the second time in three seasons.

Now, about that shot total drop: Last year, the Islanders outshot their opposition 30-27 at five-on-five, and that’s down to 30-29.5 this year. But it’s almost entirely the result of a tougher schedule.

Using ExtraSkater.com, we can isolate games played against Eastern and Western Conference opponents; against the East, the Islanders have a 31-28.5 shots advantage while they are outshot 27-31 by the West.

Just to round out the picture, let’s consider the power play:   

New York Islanders five-on-four scoring, 2011-present

The Islanders aren’t getting as many shots this year, and to make matters worse, their shooting percentage has dropped from above the league average to below it. But it’s a relatively small part of the problems in New York.

The overall picture isn’t all that bad for the Islanders. The team is roughly average at five-on-five (and considerably better than that against the East), and its shot totals on special teams are just a hair below average. That should be enough to make it a playoff team in the NHL’s weaker conference.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 23: Charles Wang and Garth Snow of the New York Islanders watch the draft board during day two of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft at Consol Energy Center on June 23, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Except, of course, for the fact that perpetually weak goaltending has finally imploded entirely. It’s inexplicable that the team’s management team hasn’t addressed this. It’s especially galling given that, with Nabokov hurt, the Isles’ current options are a mediocre AHL’er (Poulin) and a guy who can’t even consistently crack a 0.900 save percentage in the minors (Nilsson).

This is a team that should still be on the upswing, but that’s being held back by managerial incompetence.