Russ Miller eats a bit of crow - the Islanders are better than he thought
Only two weeks ago on this very platform, I wrote with confidence that the New Jersey Devils would make the playoffs and the perennially sad sack New York Islanders would not. With the Jets only one point back of three teams, but also with one less game remaining, the playoff fates of several teams will not be determined until the coming weekend. I would love to eat crow on this one (medium-well, thank you).
The Fish Sticks are on quite a roll, 8-0-2 in their last 10 games and if you stretch that out a little farther, they are 11-1-2 over their last 14 games (29 per cent of the season). This is a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs for five straight seasons and only four times in the past 17 campaigns. They haven't won a playoff round since Al Arbour was Head Coach way, way back in 1993.
So yeah, if you were to tell me at the beginning of this season that the Islanders would be one point ahead of the Rangers with only three games left in the season, I would have put a coin in your hat and told you to continue going to rehab.
Checking out the top line combinations over the past month at Frozen Pool, the line of Josh Bailey-Frans Nielsen-Kyle Okposo sat fourth with 25 points in the last month. The Brad Boyes-Matt Moulson-John Tavares line had 24 points. For comparison, the top performing line was the Jets Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Blake Wheeler trio who recorded 32 points. The super-hot Alexander Ovechkin and his line of Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson had 26 points as did the Oilers Jordan Eberle-Taylor Hall-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
There are too many variations that could happen for playoff match-ups, so let's just take a look at which Isles might be worth a look as a playoff flier, you know, in case all the Pens, Bruins, Leafs, Rangers, Habs, Sens, Caps and potentially Jets top players have all been picked over.
The obvious top dog is John Tavares, but his production over the past 10 games has been hit or miss; he has been held off the scoresheet in half of those games and has nine points in the other five matches. Over the last calendar month, Tavares is tied for third amongst humans in goals (8) with Joe Pavelski, Jiri Tlusty, Troy Brouwer and Derek Stepan. Taylor Hall and Rick Nash have nine goals apiece, while the demi-god of goal scoring, Alexander Ovechkin is all the way back, lighting up last month for 17 tallies.
No, the interesting name for me is former 2008 ninth overall pick Josh Bailey, who had one fewer goal (7) than Tavares during the past month. Only once in the last 10 games has Bailey played less than 17 minutes in a game and his average ice time during that stretch is north of 18 minutes per contest. While Bailey isn't receiving top power play minutes, he is at least getting mop-up duty. Although it took him 25 games to record his first nine points of the season, it only took him another 10 games to get his next nine points.
Frans Nielsen has found a sweet spot with linemates Bailey and Okposo. Nielsen has 10 points in his last 10 games. He receives 18 minutes of ice time per game, only two minutes of which is with the man advantage.
The Islanders second leading goal scorer is Michael Grabner, who has six goals over the last month and five in his last 10 games played. He has 16 goals on the season, but only five assists. The problem is that his ice time has been trending down even though he has been scoring at more than a 30 goal pace. Unfortunately, most leagues don't only count goals and he is likely killing his owners in all other categories.
Matt Moulson has been more consistent than most poolies likely gave him credit for. His monthly point totals have been remarkably consistent and pretty much on pace with JT. Embrace that his points come from playing with Tavares; the fact is that until he is separated from that situation, he'll continue to put up very good fantasy numbers.
To a lesser effect, Brad Boyes has been an under the radar performer, recording 19 points in his last 24 games. Another by-product of playing with Tavares, yes, but someone has to play with the big guy and it looks like the coach has settled on who they are. This translates to the power play as well. Tavares, Moulson and Boyes are the top three forwards on the team with the man advantage. Boyes has nine multi-point efforts on the season.
While Lubomir Visnovsky hasn't been a boon to fantasy owners much this season, he is coming off of back-to-back two point efforts, although that was on the heels of a seven game pointless streak. The good news for the Isles is that he has five points and is a very healthy plus-11 (no minus games) in 10 games in April. He would be one of the keys to any Isles success in the post season.
When I think of Mark Streit's campaign to date, it seems disappointing. The truth is that he is scoring at a 47 point pace, exactly the same number of points he finished with last year. He's turned it on in the month of April, recording nine points in 10 games. Streit is the main man on the power play unit and he logs more than 23 minutes of ice time per game.
Evgeni Nabokov has been a big part of the Isles success in April. He has a 7-0-2 record with a tiny 1.74 goals-against average and 0.928 save percentage. Overall, Nabokov sports a 2.53 goals-against average and 0.909 save percentage. In 80 playoff contests, the 37-year-old has 40 wins against 38 losses, all with San Jose. Depending on the match up, he could get hot for a half dozen games.
Kyle Okposo has frustrated many a fantasy owner since being taken with the seventh overall pick in 2006. His career high is 52 points and he registered 45 points last year. He is playing well with Nielsen and Bailey right now and has always had the talent to tease. Do I trust him to continue? No. Could he get hot/continue into the playoffs? Yes, but that gets to the heart of the matter; does anyone really think the Islanders can win their first playoff round in 20 years? They can if JT puts on the Superman cape.
Even with all of the above taken into consideration, only the most desperate of us are going to roll with anyone outside of Tavares and maybe Moulson in our playoff pools.
Devil of a Time
Even with the late return of Ilya Kovalchuk, last year's Stanley Cup runners-up Devils could not make a charge for the post-season. I'll admit that up until last week, I still thought they would put together a little run, but alas, they just ran out of gas.
Look no further than their last 10 games. In the two games they won, New Jersey scored nine goals and in the remaining eight games, they scored a combined nine goals. You won't win many games scoring that few goals. The leading Devil point producer in the month of April to date is Travis Zajac with five points in 10 games. Both Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus had four points.
I wasn't a big fan of the NHL (Bettman) punishing the Devils (Lou) for trying to circumvent the cap in the Kovalchuk contract debacle. I was absolutely floored (yes, that's a cap joke) that after last season's unexpected run to the Stanley Cup final, the Devils did not choose to forfeit the 29th pick in the draft. Even before the news about Stefan Matteau being released by his junior club during the team's playoffs, keeping that pick just seemed like a bizarre choice. Unless they won the Cup in 2013 (um, nope) or 2014, then that is the lowest selection they could forfeit. Obviously with New Jersey hosting the entry draft this year, they were unlikely to cough up this one, so that leaves us with the 2014 pick, which by all indications is going to be a deep draft. Unreal. Maybe Lamoriello will sprinkle some Devil dust on the Commissioner and he'll forget all about the pick they are supposed to forfeit.
It's going to take some kind of luck for the Devils to come out of this smelling like roses.
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