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Can Barzal, Tavares overcome Islanders’ putrid defense?


during a preseason game at the Barclays Center on September 25, 2017 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Bruce Bennett

Be sure to visit and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Plenty of NHL teams would kill to have centers like Mathew Barzal or John Tavares on their roster, particularly when they carry a combined cap hit under $6.5 million.

That’s part of what makes the New York Islanders frustrating, then: they have both, along with some other quality players, and yet they find themselves sitting right outside the East playoff picture at the moment.

Why? Well, it’s because they’re basically as bad at stopping people from scoring on them as they are at generating offense. They’re currently at a -17 goal differential for this season, so honestly, they might be lucky to be where they are today.

It would be convenient if you could just blame everything on their goalies Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss, and there’s no denying that they are part of the problem. Halak’s numbers are mediocre (.908 save percentage) while Greiss has been abysmal (.885 save percentage, which is almost unthinkable for a well-paid goalie in 2017-18). Unfortunately, plugging in a better goalie might just shine a light on how terrible this team’s defense has been.

In seven of their last eight games, the Islanders have allowed at least 39 shots on goal and they’ve been out-shot in seven of eight as well; the only exception came when they outshot Buffalo 29-22 on Feb. 8 ... and they lost 4-3. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Islanders have allowed a league-high 608 high-danger chances against at 5-on-5; the Washington Capitals come in a distant second with 560.

With 35.5 shots on goal allowed per game, the Islanders rank last in the league, and they’re giving up four more shots on goal than the 31.1 they average against opponents.

Maybe some of that comes down to the same creative talents making mistakes ...

... Yet it’s difficult to shake the notion that something’s very wrong here.

Beyond personnel, you wonder if Doug Weight wasn’t totally prepared for life as NHL head coach.

He brings a wealth of experience as a fantastic NHL player, and he’s seasoned as assistant, but this appears to be Weight’s first head coaching gig at any level. Considering the career path of GM Garth Snow, the Islanders might have expected Weight to be another quick learner, but perhaps some of this comes down to systems and tactics?

Whatever is at the root of this problem, it should be treated as a crisis by the Islanders, particularly if Tavares is still making up his mind about his future. If Tavares wants to see more progress before he signs an extension, wouldn’t it behoove the Isles to dig deep to find any sort of solution?

No doubt, it’s an urgent time, as Weight admitted today.

Indeed, this is a pivotal week. Along with facing the Blue Jackets at home on Tuesday, the Islanders also host the Rangers on Thursday and then turn around for a road agame against the Hurricanes on Friday. That’s three contests, all against Metropolitan Division opponents. You could mark most games as important in general, but that’s especially true if those contests end in regulation.

On the bright side, the Islanders have Barzal, Tavares, and plenty of motivation. Even if that urgency brings with it some angst.

This team is really leaking chances, though, and you wonder if they can “outscore their problems.” The answer has been “No” far too often lately, even with Barzal rocketing up the charts.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.