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Mishkin’s Musings: Surprising Early-Season Struggles For Blue Jackets, Islanders and Senators

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Over the next two weeks, the Lightning will play the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders for the first time this season. Those three clubs have struggled so far this year – a startling downturn after exceptional seasons last year. Many expected those clubs to take another step forward in 2013-14. Why hasn’t that happened?

Columbus Blue Jackets:

The Blue Jackets have qualified for the playoffs once in their franchise history (2008-09) and had been perennial cellar-dwellers in the erstwhile Central Division, where they battled Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville. Last season, however, was a different story. It was Todd Richards’ first full season as the head coach and he guided the Blue Jackets to a record of 24-17-7. It was the club’s best-ever winning percentage (.573). The Blue Jackets narrowly missed qualifying for the postseason; they finished tied for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference, but lost the tiebreaker to Minnesota.

Columbus made a few important transactions in the summer of 2012. First, they acquired goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky from the Philadelphia Flyers. Bobrovsky won the Veniza Trophy in 2013 – he went 12-3-5 with a 2.00 goals against average and .932 save percentage. Second, they traded former first overall pick Rick Nash to the New York Rangers. In return, they received forwards Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and defenseman Tim Erixon (along with a first round draft pick). Also, Columbus dealt defenseman Marc Methot to Ottawa for Nick Foligno, who had 19 points last year. Finally, late last season, the Blue Jackets made another trade with the Rangers, bringing in Marion Gaborik, a Rick Nash-like gamebreaker.

All the new pieces seemed to fit for Columbus last year, particularly Bobrovsky. With their reigning Vezina winner leading the way, many thought the Blue Jackets would get over the hump this year and qualify for the playoffs.

But heading into Tuesday’s game with the Lightning, the Blue Jackets are seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division. Bobrovsky, who ranked in the top ten in wins, GAA and save percentage last year, isn’t among the league leaders in any of those categories this season. In fact, as of Monday, the Blue Jackets were only 23rd in team defense, having yielded 79 goals in 27 games. One of their top defenseman, Jack Johnson, has only five points and is a team-worst minus 13. They’ve had some bad luck with injuries – their marquee free agent signee, Nathan Horton, has been out all season while Gaborik and Dubinsky also have missed time.

Ultimately, though, their troubles revolve around team defense. The Blue Jackets contended for a playoff spot last year because they were tied for 10th in team GAA. This season, that number has been higher – and the team’s standings position has been lower.

New York Islanders:

Like the Blue Jackets, not much was expected from the Isles last year. But they put together a terrific season, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and taking the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins to six games. Frankly, it was a close series the Islanders could have won – Pittsburgh captured two nerve-wracking overtime games on Long Island to survive that scare.

The Lightning faced the Islanders three times last season and I felt those contests were three of the best the Bolts saw from any opponent. The Islanders played a committed team game, they didn’t allow the Bolts time and space, they were quick on transition and had a dynamic top line of John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes. Their roster was filled with many young players who had endured several losing seasons as they got acclimated to the NHL game. But head coach Jack Capuano, who earned my vote for Coach of the Year last year, helped those youngsters develop. Players such as Tavares, Moulson, Franz Nielsen, Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic became difference makers. And veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov won 23 games.

If there ever was a team poised to continue progressing, it was the Islanders. They brought back most of last year’s club (other than Mark Streit, who signed with the Flyers and Boyes, who went to Florida). It just hasn’t happened, though. New York has only 20 points and is in last place in the Metropolitan Division. They’ve allowed a whopping 91 goals in 27 games and, as of this writing, are 28th in team defense. It’s true that Nabokov has been hurt, but even before his injury, his numbers weren’t stellar (3.30 GAA and .892%).

Still, the biggest difference between last year and this season has been New York’s play on the road. Last season, the Isles went 14-6-4 on the road. (They were one game under .500 at home, but many of those home defeats came early in the season – they won only two of their first 11 home games before turning things around). Their road success was a reflection of their solid team structure, the same structure that allowed them to hang with the Penguins during their playoff series. But this year, the wheels have come off on the road. Through 12 road games, the Islanders are 3-9-0 (already eclipsing their regulation loss total from last year’s road games). Their six road points are the fewest in the league.

I’m curious to watch how the Islanders play when the Lightning visit them on December 17. I’m wondering if they’ll exhibit the same impressive structure that the Bolts saw last year. Based on the early season defensive troubles, though, it would seem that part of their game has not been as sharp as it was last year.

Ottawa Senators:

Big things were expected of the Senators heading into last year. They’d qualified for the playoffs in 2011-12 and had taken the top-seeded New York Rangers to seven games. Defenseman Erik Karlsson was coming off a sensational year in which he won the Norris Trophy. They had a good balance of veterans and youngsters – and many of those young players had won a Calder Cup with Binghamton in the 2010-11 season.

Those expectations changed, however, when top center Jason Spezza was lost after back surgery just five games into last year and then Karlsson suffered a torn Achilles in Ottawa’s 14th game. The Sens had other injuries to key players, including goaltender Craig Anderson, who missed 18 games with a high ankle sprain.

But even with those extended absences to crucial players, the Sens thrived. They did it with team defense. Goalteders Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop (before he was dealt to the Lightning) provided great goaltending while Anderson rehabbed. The Sens allowed a total of 98 goals in 48 games last year, an average of 2.1 per game. In the 24 games he played, Anderson recorded a league-best 1.69 GAA.

The Sens made the playoffs against last year and knocked off the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. They eventually fell to the Penguins in the second round. Still, on the strength of his team’s perseverance in the face of those injuries, Head Coach Paul MacLean was named the NHL Coach of the Year.

This season, Karlsson, Spezza and Anderson are fully healthy. The Sens did lose longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson, who signed with Detroit. But the rest of their core returned and many figured the Senators would battle for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.

With just 24 points through 27 games, however, Ottawa’s season has been a disappointment so far. Like Columbus and New York, the biggest problem is team defense. The Sens rank 27th in team GAA. They’ve allowed 87 goals so far, just 11 fewer than they yielded in 48 games last year. Anderson’s 3.51 GAA is nearly two full goals higher than last year. (Lehner, on the other hand has posted decent numbers, but his 4-5-2 record indicates a lack of goal support in his starts).

The Lightning play the Sens five times this year, with the first of those meetings on Thursday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. We’ll see if the Sens will have tightened things up defensively by then.

What’s In Store:

In the 2011-12 season, the Lightning visited the Senators in early December. During his morning press conference, MacLean spoke about how playoff positions are often secured in the season’s first couple of months. He said that, as games become tighter in the second half and three-point (OT) games become more prevalent, it’s harder for teams to leapfrog each other. Instead, he stated, the clubs within divisions tend to move as a group.

If MacLean’s forecast is correct, then the task will be tough for the Sens, Blue Jackets and Islanders to make the playoffs. We are two months into the season. (The Senators, currently in sixth in the Atlantic, likely have the best chance, if the Atlantic Division sends five teams to the playoffs. That would happen if the fifth-place team has more points than the Metropolitan’s fourth-place club). So even though it’s only December, all three clubs surely understand the severity of their situation. Consequently, they’ll likely be in “desperation” mode to ensure their situation doesn’t get any worse. That means playing a spirited game against the opposition, including the Lightning.

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