James Nichols The Hockey Writers
Islanders Will Benefit From Paused NHL Season
With the outbreak of the Coronavirus, professional sports all over the wodl are canceling the remainder of their seasons, or postponing them to later dates. The NHL announced on Thursday that they will be pausing the season, and encouraged players and staff to follow self-quarantine protocols.
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The announcement came a day later than the NBA, who also canceled their season when All-Star Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus (from ‘Rudy Gobert, first NBA player found to have coronavirus, apologizes: ‘I was careless and have no excuse’’, Washington Post, 03/13/2020). Given that the NHL and the NBA share facilities, it was only right that the two leagues made the call to keep as many people as safe as possible. It is unknown just how long the season will be postponed.
“In light of ongoing developments resulting from the coronavirus, and after consulting with medical experts and convening a conference call of the Board of Governors, the National Hockey League is announcing today that it will pause the 2019-20 season beginning with tonight’s games.”NHL’s Statement on Coronavirus
Now that the Islanders have left Calgary and have landed safely back in New York, it’s safe to say that although this break in the season comes because of serious circumstances, the team will greatly benefit from it in a number of ways.
The Islanders are in the midst of a seven-game skid. Their last outing against the Vancouver Canucks was a little more encouraging than the prior six games, yet they still walked away only being able to collect one point. The team could use some time away from the rink, with no hockey at all, to relax their minds and their bodies.
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Game by game on this losing streak, the Islanders were seemingly being outworked on most shifts. (from ‘Still searching for a win, Islanders find a few bright spots in Vancouver’, The Athletic, 03/11/2020) There is no sense of urgency coming from the team, as, on most shifts, they appeared to sit back on their heels and let their opponents control the game. Head coach Barry Trotz did his best to find some chemistry, consistently shuffling lines and looking for answers, but the team fell out of his system and made too many mental mistakes, such as turnovers and unnecessary penalties.
After a blowout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Trotz said, “We’ve got to put more skin in the game. We don’t have enough skin in the game, and you can’t win at this time of year unless you put more skin in the game to earn points. We got exactly what we deserved today.”
The break away from the ice will help the Islanders decompress some of the anxiety likely going on in the locker room. The mental mistakes were taking a toll on the players, and they began to notice it themselves. “There’s winning and losing, but it’s more frustrating when you don’t get an effort,” Pulock said. “We just didn’t have that tonight. We weren’t ourselves.” When the NHL season finally resumes, the Islanders should hopefully have a refreshed state of mind and return to the system they know that helped them to a 103 point season in the 2018-19 season.
Physical tolls have played a big part in the Islanders season three-quarters of the way through the year. The team has suffered some unfortunate injuries to key players in the lineup. The Islanders suffered a total of three laceration injuries this season to Johnny Boychuk, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck. That’s more than the NHL averages as a whole per year. In addition, the team lost key defenseman Adam Pelech to a pre-game Achilles injury that ended his season.
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Although the Islanders will not be seeing Pelech again until the 2020-21 season, the break allows for guys like Cizikas, Clutterbuck, and Boychuk to recover and hopefully not miss any more time on the ice. Clutterbuck had already drawn back into the team’s lineup, however, he wasn’t able to stick on a nightly basis.
Boychuk took a skate to the face against the Canadiens on March 3, but luckily the skate blade missed his eye. General manager Lou Lamoriello said, “He will be fine. It’s just a matter of time with the eye-opening up and him feeling good.” After 90 stitches to repair his eyelid, he quickly returned to the ice for morning skates and claimed he can see out of his eye about 60 percent. A mandated two-week break gives the defenseman time to recover from the eye injury that almost cost him his vision.
Cizikas and Clutterbuck have been the heartbeat of the Islanders, along with linemate Matt Martin for some time now. With the mandated pause, the two fourth-line phenoms can hopefully return to health and be available for what is left of the 2019-20 season. Cizikas, who suffered a leg laceration, was supposed to join the team on their Canada road trip, and Clutterbuck, who suffered a wrist laceration, has already been activated off injured reserve. Both are likely to be ready to go by the end of this pandemic.
With Cizikas being reinserted into the Islanders lineup, the team gets a boost in a number of areas. New acquisition, J.G. Pageau has been stellar in his tenure with the team so far. However, Cizikas has been getting it done for the Islanders all over the ice for a long time. Aside from his career-high 20-goal season last year, he boasts a career 50.4 win percentage in the face-off circle, is far and away the Islanders’ best penalty killer and has averaged 140 hits per season, over the past five seasons. A healthy fourth line will give the Islanders a jolt in their lineup they very much need.
Aside from the injuries, the healthy skaters will surely benefit from this break as well (from ‘What options the Islanders have at their disposal after the latest freak injury’, The Athletic, 03/05/2020). Skaters like Mat Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and Anders Lee have taken the bulk of the minutes for the Islanders offense playing over 20 minutes a night. The first line is relied on for most of the offense, as lines two through four have been inconsistent for most of the 2019-20 season. The bottom line is, they’re tired, and playing a playoff-styled structure under Trotz for 82 games is wearing on them due to the lack of an elite scorer.
The same can be said about the Islanders’ first defensive pairing, Nick Leddy and Ryan Pulock. The injuries to Pelech and Boychuk have been a big hit to the blueline. Rookie defenseman Noah Dobson hasn’t quite gained Trotz’s trust just yet, and it forces him to roll with five defensemen playing more minutes than usual. Dobson is not eligible to be reassigned to the AHL due to his age, and Lamoriello feels he has nothing left to prove at the CHL level, which creates a difficult situation for Trotz with the current injuries.
For however long this pause in the season lasts, the top Islanders defenseman can return, once allowed, with fresh legs. The Trotz defensive structure that has been implemented should find its way back to the struggling team that hasn’t been themselves since their franchise record-breaking point streak in November.
The struggles of Thomas Greiss lately have made Trotz rely on Semyon Varlamov for the majority of starts this year. The 1A/1B goalie system has not been the same William M. Jennings Trophy-winning tandem it was last season when Robin Lehner was with the organization, but the fault should not be pinned on Varlamov.
Greiss hasn’t held up to his own this season, seeing his save percentage drop to .913. While this is still a save percentage that would suffice for any team’s backup goaltender, the drop-off has been big over the past several weeks as the co-Jennings Trophy winner has given up three or more goals over his past seven games played.
Some time away from the ice for the Islanders is exactly what they need. No hockey on their minds, just some time to relax and clear their minds. The NHL has agreed that once the pause is lifted, there will be a mini-camp if and when the season resumes. Trotz and Co. will hopefully come to camp with a new mindset, fresh legs, healthy skaters, and return to form by finding their identity again that will help them go on a run to solidify playoff position.
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