For the past decade or so, it wouldn’t be true to say that Islanders fans have had it rough. On the ice the teams have been interesting and at times very good, including back-to-back appearances in the Conference Finals. They’ve returned to their more classic sweaters and reconnected with their past greats, more recently they added Lou Lamoriello who brought back a seriousness and respect, and Barry Trotz has delivered a playing style that often presents the look of the league’s most structured team. The team, like their fans, has had the vibe of a group that’s pretty fun, but will also punch you in the mouth if given fair cause. (And who doesn’t love having friends like that?)
But actually attending games — that part’s been brutal. The team moved from the decrepit Nassau Coliseum to Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center, which is decidedly not in Nassau County or at all convenient for many Islanders fans. The Coliseum got fixed up, and ended up hosting a bunch of games again, but there was always this sort of uncertainty around the team. For a while there was no back-up plan to the whole Brooklyn thing, which never felt quite right for the blue-and-orange. They felt transient, and largely without a home base. In fact the fans — I may just start saying “we” here, given my background — still clung to the Nassau Coliseum bunker as the real home of the team while we awaited something better.
Saturday. Saturday my friends. UBS Arena in Belmont Park is going to be unveiled, and let me tell you, it is some kind of wonderful.
For starters, it’s located at the corner of the Hempstead Turnpike and the Cross Island Parkway, with transportation options a-plenty.
It’s got great sightlines and great amenities, it’s got the same low roof (just three feet higher than the Coliseum’s) so it will still be loud, and it’s got the classic bowl seating. I won’t bother doing a full infomercial, but for the love of merciful god, the Islanders days of traversing the Island between practice rinks and temporary rinks are over. They’re home, and that home includes a Shaq’s Big Chicken. What more could anyone want?
(Yes, that’s fried chicken on a blue and orange bagel. And yes, that’s a full-size bagel, Shaq just makes it look like a slider.)
I imagine “what more could they want” would include some wins, particularly if you’re ownership. The Islanders enter Saturday’s game against the Calgary Flames — the same team they opened the Coliseum against, which is kinda cool — in last place in the Metropolitan Division, which wasn’t exactly how they drew the ideal version of this season up.
Worse still, is it’s not just like they’ve been losing, they’ve been getting utterly filled in. They’ve lost four straight by combined total scores of 19-4. They’ve never been an offensive juggernaut, but they’re third last in the league in goals for per game right now (2.23, ahead of only Arizona and Montreal). Their coach referred to them as “fragile” recently, and beat writer Arthur Staple described them as “lost.” All told, it’s not great right now. Talk around the team is about their available assets and cap space, who’s going come in to fix the problem, because their once solid D-corps finally seems to be in need of help. It’s possible things may tangibly change in that regard, with names like Jacob Chychrun and John Klingberg and Mark Giordano being floated out there by Staple as players the team could hypothetically pursue.
On the flip side, it’s hard to know how much of this has been them playing an awfully poor hand to start the season.
A month into the campaign the Islanders haven’t played a single home game yet, with the league’s next lowest total of homes games played being six (Rangers, Coyotes, Flames, Sharks), and the most in the league being 12 (the Leafs). That’s 13 straight road contests to kick it all off, if you’re keeping score. That’d make any team feel lost. If the Islanders had played six (or more) of their games at home to date, they’re likely a win or two better.
There’s also no definitive “strength of schedule” number that I’m aware of, but the ones I could find online all had the Islanders as having played one of the hardest slate of oppositions in the league, with a softer balance ahead. (On this site they’ve played the sixth-hardest schedule, with the 22nd-hardest schedule ahead.) They’re also sitting at a shooting percentage of 7.38, which would be tied for the worst total of any team over the past few years, after shooting 9.38 per cent last year (and around there in the years prior to that as well). They’re gonna get luckier.
They’ve got something else in their favour as well: I’m not sold that the good starts from mediocre Metro teams is a bad thing for the Islanders. I don’t think the middle of the Metro looking like this…
…means the Islanders are somehow in for some impossible climb. I see a handful of teams that have overachieved to start off the year and are more likely to go in the other direction than stay that strong. I’d bet three of those four teams finish the season with lower winning percentages than shown here.
The Islanders have a handful of tough games ahead of them, but it’s not impossible to see better days coming. They open Belmont Arena to the Flames and Leafs, two teams off to good starts, but surely there’ll be some excitement and incentive to have great showings in the early going. Hopefully the fans can will them to a win or three in the weeks ahead.
At the start of December, things should start to turn. They’ve got a run of games that are largely at home, and against teams that’ll likely finish 20th or worse in the league (sorry to Preds fans for that assumption). Five of those seven games are at home.
Ryan Pulock is out with an injury, but he’s expected back in four-to-six weeks, and four weeks from the date of his injury is … December 15, the day after that seven-game run at the start of December.
If the Islanders can open up their building on a positive note, get rolling through what should be some inferior opposition, maybe even add a defenceman with their assets and cap space (the sooner the better there, I say), and then get Pulock back in mid-December, there’s a season here that doesn’t feel lost yet.
I still see in the Islanders a lot of what I’ve seen in them in years past. A team that gives up shot attempts but keeps the bulk of it to the outside, has good goaltending, and at their best, can be a structured team that can pop for opportunistic offence. No, it hasn’t been there for a while, or much at all this season. That doesn’t mean it’s suddenly gone.
I can’t help but feel like this is the perfect place for them to start from. They never seemed comfortable with all the expectations around the group, and people picking them to win the Cup pre-season only felt more unnatural. Right now they’re at the bottom of the division looking up, now perceived “underdogs” again, and as they prepare to open up their new home this weekend I can’t help but feel that in a few ways, they’re right where they belong.