Mailbag: Islanders have issues at defenseman, Sabres development

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What’s the plan on Long Island? Six losses in a row. A new arena. What’s wrong with the New York Islanders? Are their free agent signings this past summer working? What’s the fix-all for Lou Lamoriello? Is it time to say goodbye to the old and in with the new? — @theashcity

The Islanders are not quick enough at defenseman even when they are fully healthy. Their lack of mobility is hurting them in a league that is built on speed and skill. Their success is built on the defensive system they play, limiting slot shots and scoring chances from the net-front area, keeping their opponents on the outside and taking advantage of mistakes by quickly turning strong defense into offense. But their defensemen are struggling because keeping up is hard. It’s leading to their forwards having to do more in the defensive zone, which sucks the life out of them offensively, a reason why the Islanders are scoring 2.07 goals per game, 31st in the NHL ahead of the Arizona Coyotes (1.79).

They’re allowing 3.07 goals per game. They have not replaced Nick Leddy‘s skating. He was a weapon because of how he could move, especially in transition. Andy Greene and Zdeno Chara are playing too much. Chara is 44 and averaging 18:51 of ice time per game. Green is 39 and averaging 17:38 per game. I’d prefer to see each of them between 15-16 minutes and not playing every game. Greene played the first 13 games of the season and has missed two while in NHL COVID-19 protocol, and Chara entered protocol Tuesday. 

New York hasn’t had the stability it had last season, when Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech were a top pair, and Scott Mayfield and Leddy were a solid second pair ahead of Greene and Noah Dobson. Speaking of Dobson, he hasn’t progressed enough this season. The Islanders desperately need him to improve because he can skate and he has speed. They need him playing more, but he was a healthy scratch against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 15. 

The Islanders started to address the position by giving Robin Salo, 23, an average of 22:08 of ice time his first two games, losses to the Calgary Flames (5-2) and Toronto Maple Leafs (3-0). He didn’t stand out, but he didn’t look lost. He can skate, so they’d benefit from keeping him around. 

But that’s not enough and the Islanders need to turn this around quickly, starting against the New York Rangers at UBS Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; MSG+2, MSG, ESPN+, NHL LIVE). They are 5-8-2 and last in the unforgiving Metropolitan Division, 13 points behind the third-place Rangers. They have 12 points, and their next four games are against the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers again and Philadelphia Flyers. These are four games that could get the Islanders back in it or knock them so far out that they’ll be chasing a Stanley Cup Playoff berth all season. They can’t expect to keep up if the mobility on the back end remains compromised.

Is there any hope for the hockey-starved fans in Buffalo? — @freemasons23

If you still have patience, you’ll need more of it, because the Sabres are a work in progress. Their hot start was a nice story, but it wasn’t sustainable with the lack of experience, talent and depth on the roster. They are 2-8-1 with a minus-17 goal differential (30-47) since Oct. 31, when they were 5-1-1 with a plus-8 goal differential (22-14). 

The Sabres resemble what we’ve seen in their past 11 games, struggles on special teams (16.1 percent power play, 75.0 percent penalty kill) and sustaining offense (25.8 shots on goal per game, 46.6 percent SAT) than they were in their first seven games, when they were defensively sound (2.00 goals-against per game), offensively potent (32.4 shots on goal per game, 50.9 percent SAT) and strong on special teams (30.0 percent power play, 88.2 percent PK).

What you want to see from the Sabres this season is development from players like defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and forwards Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Asplund, Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson. You want to see Owen Power, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, have a strong season at the University of Michigan and hopefully sign with Buffalo after it’s over. You want to see forward Alex Tuch, who was acquired in the trade that sent former captain Jack Eichel to the Vegas Golden Knights, play meaningful minutes once he’s fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. You want to see the Sabres develop a culture of accountability under coach Don Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams. The results will eventually be all that matters, but for now the hope for the Sabres comes down to development and consistency. That’s why I’m curious to see if they can play their way out of their slump and keep the games meaningful into March.

Do you see the Rangers kicking the tires on Phil Kessel? They have around $8 million in cap space and Kessel is on the last year of his deal. They could use a goal scorer to play on the line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Or is there any chance for Reilly Smith if the Golden Knights need to clear cap space now that they have Eichel? — @sblandinojr

The Rangers will have options when it comes time to make a move for a forward, which I have every reason to believe will happen at some point. It makes sense for them to look for one on an expiring contract because of the NHL salary cap constraints they have coming. Adam Fox‘s cap charge increases from $900,000 to $9.5 million next season. Zibanejad’s cap charge goes up more than $3 million to $8.5 million. Forward Kaapo Kakko will need a new contract. 

Kessel, the Coyotes forward, is a goal scorer and he wouldn’t have to do a lot of the grunt work if he plays with Kreider and Zibanejad. I could get behind that move, but I like the idea of Smith better because he’s more versatile than Kessel and his connection and history with Rangers coach Gerard Gallant from their time together with the Golden Knights. Vegas is going to be in the playoff race but will need cap relief when it’s time to activate Eichel, which likely will be immediately after the 2022 Beijing Olympics in late February. The 2022 NHL Trade Deadline is March 21 and Smith is in the last year of his contract. Other pending UFAs to look at are Calle Jarnkrok from the Seattle Kraken, Andreas Athanasiou from the Los Angeles Kings and Zach Sanford from the Ottawa Senators.

The Rangers don’t need to rush because they’re winning games while taking the time to figure out exactly what they have this season in forwards Julien Gauthier, Alexis Lafreniere and Kakko. Gauthier is starting to play more like an NHL regular, using his size (6-foot-4, 227 pounds) to get to the net and his skill to create scoring chances. Kakko is scoring (three goals and two assists in four games after being held without a point in his first 10) and meshing well with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome on the second line. Lafreniere still projects as a top six forward, but the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft is being sheltered on the third line with Gauthier and Filip Chytil. I think the Rangers should put him back on the top line soon to see if he clicks with Kreider and Zibanejad before they try to add via trade.

Video: CBJ@ARI: Kessel fires puck by the glove side

What do you think the Vancouver Canucks need the most to happen to try to turn things around? Coach/general manager both fired? Maybe a trade? — @LevesqueLance

Canucks general manager Jim Benning discussed the status of coach Travis Green and his own Nov. 18. Though it seems everything will stay status quo for now, there are issues to address.

I don’t think the Canucks are built to win the Stanley Cup, but they’re built to contend to get into the playoffs with the personnel they have. They’re not going to get anywhere close to the postseason if they don’t start getting more out of forwards Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat.

Arguably Vancouver’s top three forwards have combined to score 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists). Pettersson (three goals, seven assists) and Horvat (five goals, five assists) have played all 19 games; Boeser (four goals, four assists) has played 16. The Canucks are about 50-50 in shot attempts for (816) versus shot attempts against (796) at 5-on-5, so it’s not like they’re defending all the time with little chance to get offense. They’re just not doing enough when they have the puck. 

Their special teams have to drastically change. They were second in the NHL in power play ice time per game (6:09) entering play Tuesday, but 23rd with the man-advantage (16.2 percent). It comes down to efficiency. Shots. Traffic. Shielding the goalie’s eyes. Movement. The Canucks need more of it all. They’re last in the NHL on the penalty kill (62.3 percent). When you’re that low, it suggests a need for an improved work ethic. The kill must pressure and outwork the power play to be successful. The Canucks are inconsistent in both areas.

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