The bad news is that the New York Islanders are in last place, having lost their last four in a row. The good news, though, is that their road trip from hell is finally over.
The back-to-back Stanley Cup semifinalists have had to play the first 13 games of their season away from home—the second-longest road trip in NHL history behind only the Vancouver Canucks during the 2010 Olympics—because their brand-new arena at Belmont Park was not quite ready yet. And while the early returns were OK, with the team starting 5-2-2, the last four games have seen an exhausted-looking squad drop games by increasingly lopsided margins, capped off by a 6-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Wednesday where the home team piled up four goals in the first period and chased ace goaltender Ilya Sorokin from the net.
“I thought we really sagged once they scored the first goal,” head coach Barry Trotz said after the game. “That’s part of being a bit fragile, which I haven’t said too often in the last little while.”
The loss to the Panthers—who are, in fairness, the best team in the NHL right now—comes on the heels of a 4-1 loss in Tampa on Monday to the Lightning—who are also, in fairness, the best team in the NHL in each of the past two years. Before that, though, they played an ugly game in New Jersey where they gave up a shorthanded goal in the first and then lost 4-0 in a rivalry they got used to dominating. And 10 days ago, they were in Minnesota and gave up two normal goals and two empty-netters in the third period to lose 5-2.
So things are pretty messy right now! And I don’t think it’s unfair to at least partially blame all the travel, especially after a year-and-a-half of pandemic hockey with very few long flights. The Isles last season didn’t have to travel farther than Pittsburgh or D.C. to play through their regular-season schedule, but their games this year have already taken them, literally, across the country and back over the course of a month. (I started listing all the places but then I just got that late-period Johnny Cash song about how he’s been everywhere stuck in my head.) Even in a normal year, this kind of itinerary would exhaust a team.
“It’s turned into a little bit of a long nightmare,” Trotz said on Tuesday night. “We’re looking forward to getting back.”
But blaming the Isles’ struggles entirely on travel may set fans up for disappointment when the team returns on Saturday for a week of home games. The Islanders last year were already a team that leaned heavily on its goaltending to rack up points, and the 26-year-old Sorokin has indeed carried them to victories with shutouts against Arizona, Vegas, and Winnipeg. But when Sorokin falters, like he did versus the Panthers and Devils, he falters badly. This losing streak is the first time in Barry Trotz’s tenure as coach that this team has allowed four or more goals in four straight games. (Semyon Varlamov hasn’t been very good in the games he’s started, either.)
The blame, though, should fall primarily on the skaters, who have gotten older as a unit but not better. Jordan Eberle, a regular top-five scorer on this team, is now the best player on the Seattle Kraken. Nick Leddy, a defenseman who logged 20 strong minutes on a nightly basis, is now giving that time to Detroit after he was traded with one year left on his contract. Their most notable replacements, Zach Parise on the forward lines and Zdeno Chara on defense, have yet to prove that they’re anything other than nostalgia hires, with Parise in particular boasting just three assists and no goals through his first 13 games. Anders Lee was supposed to be a big boost returning from a torn ACL that kept him out of the last playoffs, but he only has four points on the year, and late-season acquisition Kyle Palmieri got back on one of those cold streaks after coming alive in the first two rounds against the Penguins and Bruins. They sorely need to improve their pace to get the Isles scoring more than 2.23 goals per game—29th in the NHL.
A few weeks ago, you could have maybe pointed to some youngsters on this team who appeared to be taking steps forward, but even they seem to have gotten on the coach’s bad side lately. The 21-year-old sniper Oliver Wahlstrom enjoyed a hot start before growing pains led to a public callout from Trotz. And Noah Dobson, also 21, saw his responsibilities increase on defense with Leddy gone but was a healthy scratch on Monday against Tampa.
I don’t have anything nice to say about the top guys, either! I mean, Brock Nelson had a four-goal game against Montreal but otherwise hasn’t provided much. (And, come on, stats against Montreal don’t really count this year.) Mat Barzal is at least shooting the puck, but his overall production is down and he made a deeply confusing play on Tuesday that led to the Panthers’ fourth goal. One of the team’s top two D-men, Ryan Pulock, just got injured but wasn’t providing much in the first place, and the other one, Adam Pelech … well, Pelech’s all right, I guess.
The main issue is that this is a team without any stars. And that’s been an on-paper problem, too, in every year of the post-Tavares era. The Islanders previously made up for it by playing frustrating, disciplined hockey that locked up the opposition and capitalized on chances when they came. Though the need for great play from Sorokin and Varlamov (and Greiss and Lehner before them) was always there, now it’s more urgent than ever, because this shallower roster’s uptick in mistakes is putting increased pressure on the last line of defense, leading to them being outscored 19-4 in the last four games.
There are reasons to be chill about what’s happening—the Isles did start with this exact record on the road last season. But even though it’s only November, these points matter just as much as the ones in April, and in a brutal Metropolitan division where six teams have taken more than 60 percent of their possible points, every missed opportunity pushes them down the standings even faster. The poor play could indeed be a result of the nearly unprecedented road trip frying their brains, and it’s not difficult to imagine that the Islanders get back on track once they settle into their shiny new building. But it better be the travel, because that’s the only issue that’s easy to fix.