Caps correspondent Brad Parker (@StoptheHats) returns to preview the Caps-Isles series. He’s joined by his longtime hockey teammate and friend LJ, who is a diehard Islanders fan (apparently those still exist). Brad asked the questions, LJ gave the answers. We thank them both.
1. The Islanders led the Metro division for most of the season. Why?
Main reason has to be the offense. The Islanders were 4th in the league in goals for.
An improved defense as well. Garth, who gets killed as a GM, made two incredible acquisitions before the season started in early October on the same day. Nick Leddy was acquired for a very good defensive prospect (Ville Pokka) and a pick, and Johnny Boychuk for a couple of second-round picks. The fact that Stan Bowman traded Leddy rather than Oduya is insane — Leddy would be the best defenseman on the Blackhawks not named Duncan right now. It goes to my theory that NHL coaches are by and large morons. Quenneville didn’t trust Leddy as much as he trusted others, and during their Stanley Cup and playoff runs, he was relegated to a sixth- or seventh-defenseman role.
Boychuk, meanwhile, given a first pair role after playing behind Chara and others, was also deemed expendable for salary cap purposes by Boston, and he shined with career highs in most categories. Ask Claude Julien whether he would rather have had Boychuk or Zach Trotman coming down the stretch. Boychuk is what Caps fans wish Brooks Orpik could be. As a plus, his brothers might be the funniest in the NHL family on Twitter (outside of Luongo).
The other thing is what Islander fans were saying during the Nabakov years: Imagine what we could do with league-average goaltending. We have the human personification of that in Halak, and the results came in.
2. You collapsed down the stretch and barfed all over your shot at home-ice advantage. What the hell happened?
I love the institutional arrogance of a fanbase that has made it to the Cup Finals once and past the second round one other time asking why we barfed on ourselves. Couple of things.
Injuries: Kyle Okposo played his best game of the season in Pittsburgh right before the all-star break with four goals on a Friday night, then promptly missed six weeks or so with a detached retina. Nick Leddy missed four games after having a 300-plus regular-season game ironman streak. Frans Nielsen got banged up too. And Michael Grabner, who hasn’t been right most of the season after having hernia surgery, was in and out of the lineup. He’s a key part of the PK.
Schedule: The Islanders played an outrageous 15 games in 28 days during February. That’s a complete grind. And that pace kept up, more or less, through about March 20th. So Okposo missed a crap-ton of games while he was injured. It was also brutal — there was a five-game stretch of bad teams in February, but that was about it.
Coaching: There’s a line in the movie Ruthless People where Judge Reinhold’s character is picking up a ransom from Danny Devito’s character, and the ransom drop is secured by the cops. In the middle of this, Bill Pullman’s character comes to stick up Reinhold’s, unaware that there are cops all around him. One of the cops securing the scene for Devito says of Pullman’s character, “This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the earth. Perhaps we should shoot him.” The same quote applies to Jack Capuano.
Capuano’s greatest attribute is his uncanny resemblance to Fred Flintstone. Other than that, he can’t coach worth a damn. Things not working? I’ll juggle lines inexplicably. Calvin DeHaan, a tremendous second-year puck-moving defenseman going through a sophomore slump? Let’s sit him extensively for Brian Strait, who is a possession black hole and less mobile than a 2-year-old in figure skates stepping onto the ice for the first time. I’m pretty sure Josh Bailey has pictures of Capuano being intimate with a goat, because he gets every benefit of the doubt inexplicably. I generally don’t think much of coaches in this league (and this includes Trotz, by the way, whose greatest achievement seems to be getting Ovi to backcheck), but if Babcock coached this team they would have been in better contention for the President’s Trophy.
Finally, the Rangers got ridiculously (some might say unsustainably) hot in the absence of Lundqvist. The Islanders actually lost to the Rangers twice during this span — one a 6-5 debacle where they gave up a two-goal lead in the third period (such a common occurrence on Long Island that the Islanders should trademark it) and the other a 2-1 loss where a fluke shot from the point by Rick Nash went in off a skate. Those games go differently it might be a different ballgame.
3. Which Islanders player will D.C. hate in a week?
This is a no-brainer. Cal Clutterbuck, please pick up the yellow courtesy phone.
Let’s start with the ‘stache. Cal, we haven’t moved to Brooklyn yet. Why do you have a ‘stache that looks like you should be drinking a pour-over latte with locally sourced milk and eating a scone with artisanal boysenberry jam while listening to Yo La Tengo? Seriously, I hate Brooklyn — it’s filled with pretentious a-holes — and my parents are from Brooklyn. He’ll fit right in at Barclay’s next season.
On the ice, he’s a classic agitator. He will finish every check, go right up to the line, and sometimes go over it. He’ll yap as well — I’ve seen him at various times nodding sarcastically at the opposition while making the “yapping” motion with his gloves.
Matt Martin gets an honorary mention — also physical, finishes every check, but not as irritating as Clutterbuck IMO. He’s sleeping with legendary Maryland quarterback Norman Esiason’s daughter, and that could irritate some people locally.
4. Which Islander will we totally respect?
The obvious answer here is Tavares, and don’t get me wrong, he’s great. But if you’re a student of the game, I have three answers for you.
First and foremost, and you can probably see this coming, is Nick Leddy. The guy is 23 years old, one of the best skating defensemen in the league, and is a one-man breakout. If you’re a fan of possession stats, his numbers are off the charts. I think he’s still a little below the radar, but he’s gonna play his way into Norris contention over the next couple of years.
Secondly, Ryan Strome. To me, he reminds me a little bit of a young Jason Spezza. Fifty points in his first full season in the NHL at 20 or 21. Great hands, best vision on the team. As his shooting increases and improves, I think he’ll move into that 60-to-70-point range. He’s a natural center playing on the wing. If he had played the entire season with Tavares both players’ numbers would have improved (he’s that much better than Bailey). I also would have preferred him, if he was on a different line, moving back to center, perhaps between Nelson and Lee (rather than Nelson centering the so-called “Kid Line”).
Finally, Nikolai Kulemin. He kind of looks like Lurch on skates, and he doesn’t do anything exceptionally, but does everything reasonably well. Responsible defensively, kills penalties, can put in between 15-20 goals. Thanks, Dave Nonis.
5. What do you guys do very well?
If you’re a fan of possession stats, we are a good puck possession team. Even when we were crapping ourselves down the stretch, we generally outshot and out-attempted teams. This will only improve If we get Mikhail Grabovski back, who at a high level had a statistically poor season on LI, but was injured twice (including an “I’m Batman” moment on a hit by traitor to the Nystrom name Eric against Nashville) with concussions.
We can have balanced scoring, and even our fourth line (what Butch Goring calls the MC Squared Line — Martin, Clutterbuck, Cizikas) can generate a little bit of offense and cycle a bit. (Butchie’s had some head injuries, I think — you ever see the helmet he put on his melon back in the ’80s?)
I think our top three defensemen match up well with the Caps. Leddy can be out-muscled, but I doubt that there are more than two Caps forwards who can skate with him. Boychuk is just solid, and if Hamonic is healthy (please, Lord, let him be healthy), he’s a good matchup as well.
6. What weaknesses can the Caps exploit?
The obvious answer here would be the Caps power play versus the Islanders penalty kill. However, the Islanders penalty kill over the last 25 games has been top half, top third in the league based upon stats I cobbled together at Natural Stat Trick. Plus, the Islanders are one of the least penalized teams in the league. So while this is a problem against the Caps power play, I’m gonna go next level for ya.
As Chucky from Good Will Hunting might say, our bottom three is suspect. I’m not saying you have to go all Tortorella and play your top three D-men 30 minutes a game during the regular season, but, in the playoffs, should you see less of Strait and Hickey (who was an absolute dumpster fire for most of this year)? A good coach would do so, so I’m not confident that we’ll do so.
The absence of Hamonic would hurt. As would the presence of Strait over deHaan.
7. What makes John Tavares a star?
Gifted offensively, and very obviously so. Plays bigger than he is, very difficult to knock off the puck down low. Good vision, gets himself in the right position to score. Crazy hands.
Great work ethic. Each season, he works on something that he needs to improve and comes back markedly better. The knock on him entering the league was his skating, and he worked hard to improve that. Last year, it was faceoffs.
Next year, it needs to be defensive zone. He doesn’t appear to have a strong interest in the zone, and his backchecking efforts could be called by some Ovechkin-esque (Oates-era Ovi, not Trotz era). He was bad on a backcheck on the PP that led to a shorthanded goal a couple of weeks ago, and since then, I’ve noticed some improvement.
8. For the past couple of weeks you told me you didn’t want to play the Caps. Why?
They’re probably the team that had the most success against us during the regular season in the division. I wanted to play the Pens, who we’ve done well against, or even the Rangers. As good as they’ve been, we’ve done well against them. Probably the team that is the most like us in the division with a mix of speed and size.
9. Hockey arenas are sometimes referred to as old barns. Is it true that Nassau Coliseum is an actual converted barn?
Hey-o. Good one, Johnny. Look, no bones about it, the Coli is a shithole. And saying that is an insult to shitholes everywhere. One concourse, falling apart generally, and good luck if you want to use the facilities or get a beer during intermission. I’d rather have Ebola.
That said, it’s our shithole. It will be, by far, the loudest arena in the NHL during the playoffs, because it’s small, short and squat. There are no bad sightlines. The “Yes! Yes! Yes!” chant will haunt your dreams. Places like Verizon or Comcast are nice to see games for the amenities, but they’re a touch soulless and no one’s gonna confuse them with the Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens.
10. Are we about to get Halaked again?
Unfortunately, I think if anyone’s gonna get Halaked, it’s Islander fans. As good as he was during the regular season, it was masked a bit by the fact that we scored a ton and he was kind of the epitome of the league-average goalie. If he can keep up the good work on the PK that he’s shown over the last two months, I think there’s a chance you can get Halaked, but he’s gonna have to step up his game.
11. How many years are left on the Rick DiPietro deal?
Jackass. The original deal was slated to go through 2020-21, but because of the buyout and the amnesty, he will be getting $1.5M through 2029. Nice work if you can get it.
Unlike you, who’s clearly trying to incite me, I’m gonna extend you an olive branch by indulging our mutual hatred of Milbury. You’ll recall that Ricky was the No. 1 pick in 2000, when the Islanders had some kid named Luongo who they had selected fourth overall in 1997. Mike promptly traded Luongo to Florida (with Olli Jokinen, who they acquired for Palffy) for Mark Parrish (who was actually decent on the Island for a bit) and freaking Oleg Kvasha, who sucked terribly. You’d say, well, you can’t top that trade, can ya? Well, we traded Zdeno Chara and the rights to Jason Spezza essentially for Yashin.
Thanks for depressing me.
11. There’s a cool hidden element on the Isles logo that’s about to become obsolete. Should you just switch back to the Gorton’s fisherman?
This is what you get when you expect a Maryland alum to understand geography. (Ed. Note: Brad did not attend the University of Maryland, as his wife often says, “He just thinks he did.”) That said, as one who’s married to a Long Island native, I expect better. (Ed. Note: Brad is also married to a Long Island native.) You do understand, don’t you, that Brooklyn is geographically on Long Island?
I, personally, am excited for the switch to the black jerseys with the stylized B that will become our logo in two years under Ledecky’s ownership. As I am for the A-hole hipsters wearing it ironically around the borough.
12. Name three islands that are worse than Long Island.
A quick aside. When I was a kid, Newsday issued these posters about Long Island that were hung in schools. My recollection of the poster is that it read, “Long Island. A great place to live, learn and work.” So take that.
To answer your question: Three Mile, Vieques in Puerto Rico and clearly the Island of Misfit Toys.
13. We are old Patrick Division rivals. Caps fans despise the Rangers, Devils, Flyers and Penguins. Why do we not care at all about the Islanders?
See earlier comment about the institutional arrogance of Caps fans. I suspect that you don’t care as a basic psychological defense mechanism to the fact that you’re 1-4 against us all-time in playoff series. Or because of this:
(Ed. note: Read the Mr. I version of that here.)
I hope Dale Hunter rots in hell.
14. What is the Islanders’ ceiling in this postseason?
I think they can make a run to the conference finals if things break right. I actually think they have a higher ceiling than the Caps, because I think they match up better against the Rangers as a potential second-round opponent.
That said, it wouldn’t shock me to see them go out in the first round either. I know everyone loves the Canadiens to get upset early in the playoffs, but they have the best goaltender by far, and if we have to face them (or the Lightning with the scary scoring depth), I don’t think we can beat them.
15. You and I played on the same team for years. (Go Cobras!) Once after a game you went into the refs’ locker room and berated them. I think you ended up with 24 PIMs that game. I don’t really have a question here.
This is true. I think it was the same game where a goalie (who will remain nameless) came out to fight me at center ice after we scored a goal. I *MAY* have taunted him in his crease, but nonetheless, I ended up with two minors and he ended up with no penalty even though he clearly left his crease. That precipitated everything. It wasn’t Have Another Doughnut You Fat Pig, but it was close.
16. The Islanders will win the series if …
Keep penalties to a minimum. Not sold on the Caps at even strength as much — I think we’re a better team. The Caps had about a quarter of their goals on the man advantage, and a little less than half of those were from Ovechkin. If we can neutralize the weak-side cross-ice pass for the one-timer, that will help. Halak has to improve on his regular-season numbers, and it wouldn’t kill us if Holtby was a little closer to average.
17. The Caps will win the series if …
I think if they consistently capitalize on the power play, we’ll be in a lot of trouble, especially if we give them a ton of opportunities. (Pierre McGuire-level insight there). If Holtby plays as well as he has (or better), we might be in a bit of trouble.
I know the narrative around here from Laughlin (who was laughably biased on the broadcast on Saturday) is that the Caps are deeper and better defensively. I like John Carlson, and I like Alzner (and I haven’t watched them a ton), but the advanced stats say that the top three Islanders D-men are better than the Caps’ top three.
The Caps are only going to go as far as Ovechkin (though I think Backstrom is unbelievable) and Holtby will take them. If Ovi is ordinary, or less than that, I think the Caps are in a lot of trouble.
18. Your prediction?
My prediction is that the series will go seven. The Islanders will outshoot and out-attempt the Caps, but ultimately lose. (And if you think I’m trying to put the whammy on the Caps, you’re right.)