PRE GAME: ISLANDERS @ MAPLE LEAFS
EDIT: Jonathan Bernier starts in goal for Toronto (per James Mirtle on Twitter) and Michael Grabber will be a healthy scratch (per Arthur Staple on Twitter)
The Islanders will make their first visit of the season to the Air Canada Center (Centre?) when they take on Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Isles come into this matchup off the heels of a 3-game homestand where they picked up four out of six possible points going 2-1-0 in the process. In their most recent game versus the Red Wings, the Islanders blew yet another third period lead, this time in the final minute of the third, before Frans Nielsen scored the only goal of the shootout with his patented “Danish Backhand of Justice™”. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov was injured on the first shot of the game on Saturday night and will be out of action for at least one month with a groin injury. The Islanders have called up Anders Nilsson to replace Nabokov and backup Kevin Poulin, who now has a golden opportunity to run away with the number 1 goaltending job. After using their road record to elevate themselves into a playoff berth last season, the Islanders have struggled on the road thus far owning a 3-6-0 record.
After blowing the most infamous of 3rd period leads in their playoff series against the Bruins last season, the Maple Leafs have picked up right where they left off before that fateful night in Boston. Owning a 12-7-1 record, the Leafs are two points behind the Bruins atop the “Atlantic” division standings. The Leafs have been dominant thus far this year at the ACC with a 7-2-0 record at home to show for it. Rob Ford's hometown team is led by leading goal (10) and point (19) scorer Phil Kessel, purged Flyer James van Riemsdyk and Captain Dion Phaneuf. The Leafs also sport one of the better goaltending tandems in the NHL with James Reimer and former King and Islander-fan dream last year, Jon Bernier. Bernier is 7-5-1 with a 2.05 GAA and a .938 Save Percentage with one shutout while Reimer is 5-2-0 with a 2.27 GAA and .942 save percentage also with one shutout. Reimer was in net for the Leafs last game, a 4-2 win over the hapless Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. Having several days in between games, there is no definite answer for who will be starting for the Leafs at the time of this posting, and that is part of what makes Toronto difficult to prepare for. Having to study and teach tendencies for both goalies could be a mental overload on the coaches and players, especially when both netminders are more than capable NHL starters. Another major offseason acquisition for the Leafs came by way of Newark, New Jersey, and after beginning the season by serving a 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to handle a tiff with Sabres defensemen John Scott, forward David Clarkson is still looking for his first goal as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. That's 7 years and $36.75 million still searching for a goal. Finally, the Isles should breathe a sigh of relief as Nazem Kadri is suspended for this game (and two others) for leveling Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom. Kadri, as you may remember, scored his first career hat trick against the Islanders last season
Playing in Toronto is usually a homecoming for several players on opposing teams and the Isles are no different. The most notable Islander going to play at home tonight is captain John Tavares. JT, a Mississauga native, has owned the Maple Leafs thus far in his young career amassing 8 goals and 8 assists (16 points) in 15 games against Toronto. Unlike last year when his whole line made a homecoming to Toronto (Moulson and Boyes), Tavares now plays with an American (Okposo) and an Austrian (Vanek, if healthy), but that shouldn’t prevent Tavares from continuing his domination of the Leafs. Also hailing from Ontario are Casey Cizikas (listed as from Toronto), Josh Bailey, Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Carkner. Surely some of these guys have dropped serious money for their friends and family to be able to watch them play so effort and &"battle level" should not be an issue.
With no timetable on either Lubomir Visnovsky or Brian Strait, the biggest personnel question that will be facing the Isles is who should sit when Thomas Vanek is good to go? Brock Nelson has been a solid player on the Tavares line and though he will get bumped down a line or two or three, Nelson should not be sitting unless his game nose dives. The candidates most fans desire to sit are Peter Regin and Pierre Marc Bouchard. Of the two, I’d be more inclined to sit Regin as Nelson can slide over into the 3rd center role. However, PMB is a top-six forward who is more noted for his ability to be sly with the puck than his forechecking. Isles coach Jack Capuano has dropped Bouchard down to the 3rd line and allowed Michael “I’m allergic to the twine” Grabner to slot in the second line with Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey. Bouchard does not belong on a bottom-six line and his presence does a disservice to the team, who relies on the bottom lines to forecheck their hardest every shift, and to a player who is the Minnesota Wild’s all-time franchise leader in points.
Circling back to Grabner now, a friend of mine threw out the possibility of trading Grabner for some D-help and after much thought, I agree with this strategy 100%. Grabner is not a vital cog to the success of the Islanders. Sure, his breakaways gets the fans out of their seats, but his misses on these breakaways deflates a fan base that haven't yet learned not to hold their breath that he will put a goal in. Now having gone 20 games(!) without a goal, this former 30-goal scorer, who does not belong on the ice more than 15 minutes a game is the Islanders greatest expendable asset. Speed is a great thing to have on a team, but when that speed doesn’t forecheck and is unable to cash in on the opportunities that the speed ability provides, that speed becomes expendable. Two teams gave up on the former first round pick before Garth Snow claimed him on waivers, and now is the time to turn this waiver wire "gem" into pieces the Islanders need. Speed alone will not win games in the NHL, and Grabner has shown very little other than his speed. Assuming Grabner peaked during his 30-goal season and is merely a 15-25 goal scorer, the Isles have enough of those to spare and wouldn't dent the goal column much. Moving Grabner also moves a salary commitment both short and long-term, and knowing how this team operates it would be a fool’s errand to ask Wang and Snow to add salary without giving some back up. Do I have a specific trade in mind? No, but the premise of a deal around Grabner is one I hope Snow is looking into.
A little side note here- With the Islanders defense struggling to knock players down to the ice, perhaps they could use this trip to sign the aforementioned Mayor of Toronto after he displayed yesterday a cunning ability to level the opposition. No word on whether Ford would be automatically entered into the NHL’s substance abuse program. Video is here if you have not seen it. http://www.examiner.com/article/mayor-rob-ford-attacks-woman-is-voted-do...
Interact with us on Twitter! @KyleScheiner @TCLIsles
Photo courtesy of National Post (Canada)