Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Sound Of Silence

Following their statement win against the rival New York Rangers, the Islanders returned home to face a Pittsburgh team that was right behind them in the division standings.  I read a tweet a month or so back (sorry to the author, but I couldn't find it) that stated, "It's exhausting keeping up with the Penguins."  This has stuck with me because, goddammit, it's so true.  Even after winning three in a row, the Islanders were looking at the possibility of being only a point ahead of the Penguins in the division standings (and with one more game played).  Considering the Isles were going into a back-to-back set of games - with a road game in Montreal to follow the contest against Pittsburgh - I personally had a bit of that "Geez, the Pens are still right behind them?" feeling amidst all my happiness.

In the latest example of their never-say-die attitude this season, the Islanders defeated the Penguins by coming back from down a goal in the third period.  Four (!) goals from Kyle Okposo powered the late game charge and gave another sellout Nassau Coliseum crowd an exciting evening.  The very next night, the road game against the Canadiens proved to be as difficult as most people thought it would be.  It was nice to see the "can't win them all" attitude that the team has helped bestow on the fans continue to prevail when such games happen.

The Islanders only had one game in the week leading up to the All-Star break.  It was an opportunity for the Penguins and New York Rangers to make up a game or two on the division leading Isles.  The Rangers continued their good play, winning both their games - one of which was against Pittsburgh.  The Pens lost their other 2 games as well, although they were able to get two points out of those games by losing in OT and a shootout.  The Isles took care of the struggling Philadelphia Flyers to earn their only possible 2 points.  When the players were finally headed out to relax for a few days (those that weren't going to the All-Star game, of course), the Isles had a 3-point lead over the Penguins and a 5-point lead over the Rangers.  Quite a lovely spot to be in with 36 games remaining.

Not only is the All-Star break the unofficial halfway point of the season, but it also kicks off every hockey journalist/sportscaster's dream season.  The NHL trade deadline is a little over a month away and it's time for those rumors and suggestive articles to start flowing.  The Islanders are in a position to try and upgrade their team for the playoffs.  However, as more than a few of those hockey writers have pointed out in the last week, why would general manager Garth Snow want to?  As Arthur Staple of Newsday wrote, "Snow is not remotely focused on adding any pieces to what he and his players feel is a fairly complete roster."

Nothing To See Here

Trade rumors and speculation are fun.  But even before the reports surfaced that very little is expected out of Islanders management on deadline day, I wondered if the cost of doing business at the trade deadline would be too high.  The Islanders (according to the entire Internet) could use a new backup goalie and a left wing for superstar center John Tavares.  I don't disagree with the possible need to replace goalie Chad Johnson, but I've changed my opinion on the need for a top-line wing to play with Tavares and Okposo.  And I don't mean the need for an all-star left wing like the Oilers' Taylor Hall, I'm talking about any available forward.

It's obvious any of the bigger name players will be pricey.  Isles fans have enjoyed watching young players Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and Calvin de Haan all year and trading away even one of those guys seems crazy at this point.  And rest assured, every other GM in the NHL would be looking at those young players in order to make any sort of trade.  Plus, Snow has a severe lack of upcoming draft picks, making the inclusion of young prospects even more of a lock.  He could look to use veteran players like Josh Bailey and Michael Grabner to land a forward, but really...why?

The Answer Is 91

I've personally come to believe that trying to give John Tavares a top left wing to play along side is ignoring everything he's proved to be capable of when it comes to linemates.  For some reason, people are forgetting what Tavares has done for many previous partners.  PA Parenteau, Brad Boyes, Blake Comeau and Matt Moulson (among others) all increased their personal scoring production while with Tavares.  One could argue that even Thomas Vanek's stint on Tavares' wing resulted in one of the best stretches of Vanek's all-star career.

Why would the Islanders want to trade away any good assets in order to provide Tavares with the type of player that he's already proved he can create on his own?

"Because the team will be even stronger if they did!"

With every passing victory, it's getting harder and harder to say the New York Islanders need to be stronger at their forward positions.  What are we looking for as fans?  To win games by five goals instead of two or three?  Bailey has performed quite well in his recent time with Tavares and Okposo, with 9 points over his last 9 games.  Is that not good enough?

Additionally, even if the coaches feel Josh Bailey isn't the best fit for Tavares and Okposo, switching wingers in and out has seen all of them perform (at least) adequately.  Head coach Jack Capuano has used this option a number of times.  The depth of this Islanders team is its main strength.  The biggest question right now isn't who should be traded, it's who will have to sit when Mikael Grabovski returns from injury.

We Need To Talk About Matt

If there's any move that would be feasible for Snow, it would be to replace current backup goalie Johnson with a more experienced netminder.  Johnson's signing was very good because he was inexpensive and was coming off a very good season.  More than halfway into the season, he hasn't shown the ability to return to those numbers.  His year with Boston is looking like the outlier and not the norm.  With all-star starting goalie Jaroslav Halak being closely monitored for the number of games he is to play, having a capable backup to keep Halak fresh for the playoffs is likely the team's highest priority.

Matt Donovan is going to be a decent (possibly very good) NHL defenseman.  In the handful of games he's played, he's played relatively well.  He must clear waivers in order to be sent to the AHL, so he's been stuck with the big team and scratched regularly.  He is the only tradable player on the roster that won't disturb the depth if he's gone.  Plus, he has value (hence the fear of putting him on waivers).  Johnson doesn't have nearly as much, but his cheap contract doesn't hurt.

If I'm hoping for anything on trade deadline day, it's this:
  1. Trade Donovan and Johnson for a more experienced backup goalie.
  2. Don't make any other trades.
Honestly, I'd probably come to terms with Johnson still being on the team after the deadline.  It's possible he improves in the weeks to come.  As long as Halak can rest enough to be as healthy as possible for the playoffs, the team can survive with Johnson back there for another 8-10 games.  After all, they've won 6 of the 11 he's started.

So enjoy the glorious silence of the upcoming trade season, Islanders fans.  For the first time in a long time, your team's management staff can sit back in their chairs and relax while every other team tries to catch up to where they've already been.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Preparing A Statement

The Isles followed up their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad loss to the Edmonton Oilers with a not-as-terrible-but-still-terrible loss to the Vancouver Canucks.  The team was on their longest road trip of the season (seven games) and was struggling to a 2-2 record in the first four games.  It was a bit nerveracking, but having exorcised the Michael Bay demons, I let the excuse train pull out of the station without me and waited for them to return to the East Coast.  While still technically on a road trip, they practiced in their own facility (and probably slept in their own beds) before facing the Devils in New Jersey.

Islander captain John Tavares made sure the losing streak stopped by taking over the end of the game and winning it in overtime.  They followed that exciting win with a convincing one in Columbus over the Blue Jackets.  Regardless of their win-loss records, these were not insignificant opponents as both were divisional rivals.  It gave the Islanders enough points to jump to the top of the division.  All was well again in Islanderland.

But the final road game was against THE divisional rival.

The New York Rangers were playing the best hockey in the NHL over the last month.  They had won 13 of their last 14 games.  Of those 13 wins, only 2 were in overtime or a shootout.  They'd returned to MSG as the conquering heroes of New York.  The Islanders were merely that team in their way, apparently unaware of the the fury about to be unleashed upon them.

At least that's how the local media sounded.  The game hype ramped up quicker than you could say "Any one have that video of Dan Cloutier beating up Tommy Salo?"  I put my best smack-talk hat on as well.  The rivalry was finally fun again.  I wanted to take full advantage.

I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I didn't want to write game articles.  No previews or recaps.  I would use this space as a personal journal for this (increasingly) happy trip I'm taking as a New York Islanders fan this season.  More importantly, I'm lazy.  Game-centric posts require deadlines.  I don't like deadlines (unless I'm being paid to like them).  So it shouldn't surprise anyone to notice that this is being posted nearly 24 hours after the game has ended.  Still I felt this game, with it being the most important game to date, deserved a running commentary post.  I'm not sure what it accomplished, but it was fun.

I wanted to make sure anything I decided to tweet during the game wasn't duplicated here.  I try to be funny on Twitter (most jokes fall flat, but meh) and more analytical here, but the two timelines do overlap.  If you happen to also follow me on Twitter my suggestion is to ignore any similarities to my timeline from last night and do not peek behind the curtain.

Here's my log, mostly unedited, from the time of puck drop yesterday.  The pics were added afterwards, but they're based on the emotional state I scribbled down at the time.

We're off.

First Period

7:05 - I'm not one to exaggerate, but it feels like Tyson-Spinks had less buildup than this game does in the NY area.

7:11 - I'm trying to convince myself that if the Islanders lose this game it's alright because they'd still be 3 points ahead of the Rangers.  Less than two minutes has elapsed in the first period before this thought occurred.  Some habits die really, really hard.

7:13 - Halak puck handling alert #1.  Nothing happened.  Which is why it's noteworthy.

7:18 - Every faceoff in the Islanders zone terrifies me.  I have watched a few Rangers games and, while they aren't very good at faceoffs overall, they always seem to have an offensive zone draw play that works when they win one.  It's like Bill Belichick diagrams their faceoffs.

7:23 - Rangers had one good shift in the Islanders zone, but so far the Isles have had plenty of chances.  Shots are 7-3 NYI.

7:28 - Shots now 7-6 Isles.  Seems things have turned a bit.  Actually, they've spun around completely.

7:31 - Let's check how the Isles' defense is doing in their zone right now:

7:38 - So the Rangers just hit the post three times on the same rush.  Two of the posts came on a single pinballing empty net shot attempt from Derrick Brassard.  Unrelated, here's a picture of Jaroslav Halak preparing for a game:

7:43 - End Of The First Period

Second Period

8:01 - Seems the Islanders have arrived.  And only a period late.

8:11 - Isles score, but it's waived off because Casey Cizikas was in the crease and hit Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  I agree with the call, but my irrational internal fan thinks different:

8:14 - Isles still being aggressive and getting lots of time in the Rangers zone.  Second period shots are 8-1 Isles.  They had a big shot advantage at one point in the first period, but it's a very different feeling than the first time.

8:16 - Visual representation of an Islanders forecheck when it's working as intended:

8:21 - The Isles break though on a goal off a rebound by Anders Lee.  I don't think Lee's combined goal distance is more than his wingspan.  But they all count.

8:24 - Rangers finally get a scoring chance, but it didn't do much to decrease my excitement meter, which is still pegged at "Boner-Causing" following the Isles taking the lead.

8:27 - The Isles go back to setting up camp in the Rangers zone and now hold a 12-4 shot advantage in the period.  Ryan Strome is having his mail forwarded to the space behind Lundqvist.

8:31 - Isles go to a power play and immediately hit the post.  Kyle Okposo is the Magneto of the NHL.

8:35 - The Isles don't score on the power play.  I now fear the upcoming make-up call that gives the Rangers the next power play.  Let's just say the Isles still haven't solved all their penalty killing issues.

8:38 - Luck again shines on the Isles as a bouncing puck goes right to Nikolay Kulemin in the slot and he wrists one past Lundqvist.  Feeling both excitement and relief at the same time is not natural.

8:41 - And here's that power play for the Rangers.  Even though the penalty killing has been much better of late, I still see this when the PK units come out for the start of a shorthanded shift:

It's the last facet of this team that ramps up the nervousness to prior-years level.  I still feel like something bad is going to happen and must mentally prepare for the letdown.

8:43 - OR THAT HAPPENS.  Frans Nielsen scores shorthanded on an arguably (ok, not arguably) soft goal.  However, us mere mortals shalt not judge.  It is Frans that shall be the judge.

8:46 - Islanders take a 3-0 lead into the final period.  Isles fans jubilant reaction to Nielsen's goal followed by their immediate reaction to the fact that the team now has a three goal lead with one period left might be the funniest thing so far this year.

Third Period

9:00 - Third period about to start.  The Rangers pulled Lundqvist and put in backup Cam Talbot.  Not having one of the best goalies in the league playing against your team is always a good thing.  However, the Isles still have 40+ seconds to go on a penalty kill.  Giving up a PPG early would be bad.  Giving up the first goal is how blown leads get started.  #analysis.

9:05 - The Isles kill off the remainder of the penalty, and the Isles fan universe exhales.

9:08 - So far, the Isles look pretty good, but definitely more cautious.  The difference is the Rangers look just as bad as they did in the previous period.

9:13 - Isles fans on Twitter are starting to ring their hands in anticipation.  But there's still 11 minutes left in the game.  By the time the game ends, #IslesTwitter will be inexplicably silent because every fan has rubbed off their own fingers and can't type.

9:16 - The Rangers finally get a good change and Jaroslav Halak comes up big.  Even when the team is making it easy for him most of the game, he's made the saves when needed.

9:18 - First recorded instance of Isles fans chanting at MSG.  That never gets old.

9:21 - The last few minutes have a very pedestrian feel to them.  Not saying the Rangers are giving up, but I think Martin St. Louis was ordering a beer from the bench.

9:24 - So far the Islanders have 42 shots on goal.  Seems they figured out the how-not-to-collapse-with-a-three-goal-lead thing.  Honestly, the third period had a very familiar feel to it.  Except it wasn't the Islanders getting shut down on every rush trying to come back against a better team.

9:27 - Things are so different this year that I've written the phrase "It's because the Islanders are really good" more than once and never sarcastically.

9:28 - MSG sounds like a Knicks game.  The Ranger fans who are left are trying desperately to not check their phones for any social media updates.

9:30 - I'd write more, but the Rangers went home 15 minutes ago and everyone is bored.

9:32 - Now there's an even LOUDER pro-Isles chants at MSG.  Nope.  Still not old.


The game ended with the Islanders shutting out the Rangers at MSG, 3-0.  Some general hockey folks - specifically those who'd just been following the team from afar from the first half of the season - were writing some pretty flattering things about the Islanders.  There's always that defensive version of me that springs up, powered by sarcasm and pride and ready to put them in their place.

That wasn't the prevailing emotion, though.  I felt energized.  The team had been given the opportunity to make a grand entrance on the local and national stage and they came through.  Now the Islanders can continue with the rest of the season as the whole league pays attention.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Defeating Michael Bay

Up until this year, I've been a passive defender of Michael Bay's films.  I understood what they brought to the table in terms of entertainment.  There'd be plenty of exciting shots.  Plenty of explosions and flames viewed through an abundance of spinning camera moves.  I enjoyed them for what they were and argued with other cinephiles about it.

When Transformers was released in 2007, I was downright giddy.  Not because it was Bay directing, but because I was a Transformers kid growing up.  Bad acting and unnecessary slow-mo shots of Megan Fox be damned, I was all in.  Why not?  I liked both Bad Boys films.  I love The Rock.  Give me my hero-angle shot looking up (and circling, of course) at Optimus Prime fighting Decepticons and it's all good.

Over the course of the first three films, the optimism waned but I was still invested in each movie when it came out.  Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen was pretty terrible from a story standpoint.  It made absolutely no sense whatsoever.  However, it gave us the best Optimus scene in any of the four films:

I won't bore you with all the super-dork details, but the gist is Bay's Optimus was a sociopath and homicidal.  Even so, this scene was the closest we got to seeing "our" Optimus.  Little nuggets of sentimentality like this popped up here and there in the first three movies.  There were enough crumbs sprinkled into the mess to feed my rants of justification to those who would speak ill of the films.

Then the fourth film arrived this year along with another Michael Bay-produced take on a childhood favorite, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  It was an assault on my personal nostalgia.  It felt like both Bay and Jonathan Liebesman, the director of TMNT, were daring us GenXers to try and find something to like about the movies.  They were aggressively awful.  I mean, THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED:

It was so bad in fact, that I was slapped into realizing how defending any of the films (including the previous ones) was such a misguided attempt at accepting a bad version of something I cherished.

This past Sunday, when the Islanders lost to the Edmonton Oilers (the NHL's current worst team), my reaction started off in that long-used excuse zone.

"Without those two terrible mistakes that gifted goals to the Oilers, they might have won."

"Scrivens stole that game for them.  The Oilers weren't even that good."

"I wasn't wearing my older Islander hat.  This new one doesn't have the good vibes yet."

"I wasn't drunk enough."

It didn't take long to give up on that whole train of thought.  As I've chronicled through this blog, our thinking as Isles fans has changed this year.  Fifteen minutes after the game, I felt most of the #IslesTwitter universe had properly moved on.  The great Arthur Staple of Newsday put it best:

What I did think about was how that type of game, the textbook "playing-down-to-the-worst-team" performance, has elicited three distinct types of reaction between this year, last year and all those prior seasons.  This year was a simple shrug.  Two (or more) seasons ago it would've been the excuse Baysplosion.  Then there was the 2013-2014 season.

Last year was the most disappointing season I've had as an Islanders fan in a decade.  The team had made the playoffs that past spring (albeit in a shortened season) and had a great series against the perennial powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins (boom, alteration).  Losing the series was heartbreaking but man, the optimism juices were flowing.  Then Garth Snow took those happy feelings, placed them on his desk and let them sit there, unaddressed and slowly wilting, for the entire summer.

We're waiting, Garth...
He made no moves to improve the roster.  Truth be told, he made things worse by trading away one of his best prospects at the draft for a 3rd/4th line grinder.  When the team started the year playing rather mediocre hockey, the excuse robots were at DefCon 1 quicker than usual.  Snow figured doing nothing didn't work in the offseason, so he traded for Thomas Vanek and gave away one of the team's future first round draft picks.  Not only was the fanbase panicking, it seemed the GM was also.  Nothing worked.  The team continued into its November freefall and all hope was lost by Christmas.  It infuriated me as a fan so much that the luster of the 2013 playoffs was scraped away and any excuse-making I did made me hate myself even more.

The 2013-2014 Islanders were the Transformers 4/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of the team's recent history.  They made me stop defending Islanders management and players.  Even as the following offseason progressed and Snow made more and more roster moves, it was hard to know if the team was actually improving or if we'd simply witness another spectacularly exciting Baysplosion trying to cover a terrible narrative.

Now that it seems we've made our way out of this fiery Bayverse of Islander history, it's clearer to me how much of a shitshow not just last year was, but a vast majority of the last decade.  That sounds silly.  How could I not see how bad things were?  I think I did, but I was always at the ready with an excuse for it.  By the turn of the calendar from 2014 to 2015, I'd run out of those excuses.  Garth and the Isles had peeled all away from me.

When the credits rolled on Transformers: Age Of Extinction (and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for that matter), I had nothing to say.  I had just witnessed Optimus Prime punching out Grimlock and riding him into battle like he was Prime's personal gimp.  It was the last straw.  It was the Michael Bay equivalent of Garth signing Radek Martinek to fill out the defense corps.

"Really?  This is what's happening?"

Had things gone south again this year, it would've been impossible to muster up any new defense for continuing to be a fan.  Of course, I'd still actually be a fan, but I know I'd have devolved into one of those full-on cynics who are incapable of any sort of optimism.  Think Randy Quaid in Major League.

So far, this Islander team has played well enough that even when they lose a game to the worst team in the league, no excuses are required.  A year ago, I hated how they stole them from me.  Now, I'm happy to not need them any more.


For the record, my favorite director is David Fincher.  A guy who makes moves about how cynical and masochistic people are inside.  I like to think a long-time, optimistic fan suffering through last year's Islanders is one way a person becomes that way.  Let's all hope that this new Islander team is moving towards a happier ending like Panic Room (where the good in people prevails) instead of, oh, almost all of his other movies where ambiguity reigns.


For an amazing breakdown of "Bayhem", checkout this video by Tony Zhou.  If you like geeky movie talk about stuff like editing, direction, lighting and other technical aspects, his YouTube channel is fantastic.