Social Psychologists refer to the fundamental attribution error as the tendency for humans to, when failing, attribute their shortcomings to external factors instead of internal ones. For example, a student who fails a math test may attribute his failure to the extreme difficulty of the test, while in fact, he may not have studied so hard for the exam anyway. With all the talk of firing general manager Garth Snow surrounding the team and the fanbase, maybe it’s time to take a step back and look deeper at what the Islanders players themselves may have been missing.
The Islanders finished the season with a 35-37-10 record, a terrible one considering the team was expected, by many, to contend for a playoff spot late into the season. Instead, they collapsed after shutting out both the Rangers and Hurricanes and lost the bulk of their remaining games. Still, they boasted one of the best offenses in the entire NHL.
Mathew Barzal had an incredible rookie season, compiling 86 points and receiving a Calder Trophy nomination. John Tavares returned to form after having a relatively disappointing 16-17 campaign. Josh Bailey and Anders Lee also had breakout seasons, and Nick Leddy, despite his lowly +/-, finished among the top 25 in defensive scoring. They were in a playoff position by the time Thanksgiving came and went, but the team’s defensive issues were never met and the team gradually worsened to the point of no return. It left too many fans angry and frustrated, and rightfully so.
Coming into this season, and even after the Isles’ lost many players to injury, they still had one of the better rosters in the NHL “on paper.” Any team with the likes of John Tavares and Mat Barzal centering your top two lines should have a chance at winning. Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk (when healthy), and Thomas Hickey have proven themselves to be serviceable defensemen, and at the very least, they match up on paper to defensive cores of teams like the Flyers, Devils, Avalanche, and Golden Knights, all of whom made the playoffs. The Islanders’ defense corps underachieved this year. But the question remains why. Why can some teams just rise to the occasion and dominate at will, while others can’t seem to find the spark they need to ignite greatness?
If you told me a year ago that the Vegas Golden Knights would be in the conference finals, I’d laugh at you. Yes, there is tremendous parity in the NHL and anything can happen, but there was no way the Knights were going to compete with the likes of the Kings, Sharks, and Ducks.
But then came 1 October, a tragic night on which Stephen Paddock fired shots from his Mandalay Bay Hotel room and murdered 58 people, a number that would later become the first to be retired by the expansion team. A few days later, the Knights went on the road to begin their season. They defeated the Dallas Stars with a late game comeback, did the same to the Coyotes a few days later, then came home to Vegas and sent chills down the spines of NHL fans around the world as they honored the victims and first responders of the tragedy, only to follow up the ceremony with rally towels waving and a rambunctious crowd that the NHL would never expect from an arena in Las Vegas.
Tomas Nosek scored the first home goal in their history and Vegas resident Deryk Engylland followed it up with a bomb from the blue line. They haven’t stopped since.
Everyone is overachieving. Players who didn’t buy into the system were released or sent down. They played players who wanted to and knew they could win. They connected to the city and developed a bond with it through the events of that fateful night. They went into the city afterwards and donated blood, met with law enforcement, and spoke to residents. Whenever they come out of the tunnel, they are playing for the city, and the city is coming out for them.
The 2016-2017 Ottawa Senators weren’t all that great of a roster on paper either. Sure they had Erik Karlsson, but their next best scorers were Mike Hoffman (61 points), and Kyle Turris (55 points). Their season, however was one that represented the brotherhood that a professional sports team can exhibit.
Early in the season, the team was informed that forward Clarke MacArthur would miss the entire regular season with a concussion when defenseman Patrick Sieloff hit him in practice. It was a massive blow to the squad as he was supposed to be the second line left wing for the club. Soon after, goaltender Craig Anderson’s wife Nicholle was diagnosed with cancer. He missed many games to be with his wife and help her in her most difficult times. When he came back, he played incredibly. Wedged between his absences was a 37 save shutout against the Oilers, and he stopped all 33 shots he saw against the Islanders when he returned again in February.
Once they made the playoffs, Nicholle was cancer free and she surprised her husband after one of their games in Boston. Speaking of the playoffs, Clarke MacArthur returned to the lineup and scored the series clinching goal in game 6 of the first round. They would beat the Rangers in the second round before falling one goal short in game 7 against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins. The team rallied around their fallen players and it gave them motivation to play better every night. Losing in game 7 was a tough pill to swallow, but it was a successful season for the Senators.
Rallying around cities during times of tragedy and injured players is relatively easy. People develop a strong connection to those around them. But what about rallying around yourselves, proving doubters wrong?
That’s what the Washington Capitals have arguably been doing this season. Many believed that their offseason subtractions would cost them a ticket to the dance, but the Capitals have been proving everyone wrong since October. Ovechkin seems to have channeled his inner hungry Siberian brown bear, desperate to win his first ever Stanley Cup as though his life depends on it. Anything that gets in the way of that goal is met with fury and ruthlessness. Any means to that end is fair game for the Great Eight.
His teammates are following suit. Evgeny Kuznetsov has been dynamite these playoffs. Christian Djoos, Lars Eller, and Michal Kempny are breaking out before our eyes. A team that has consistently underachieved is finally on the verge of winning it all. It took losing two games in a row to the Blue Jackets to spark it in the postseason, but they haven’t looked back since. They understand how amazing winning the Cup can be, and they are pouncing on the opportunity.
One can look at any successful team and theorize what motivated them to perform as well as they did this year, but why couldn’t the Islanders? In sum, it was a lack of will to win from the majority of the players. It was being satisfied with just enough. After coming back from 4-1 down against the Red Wings, the Islanders were gift-wrapped a 5-minute major and scored 5 goals, before having to win in OT.
They couldn’t hold on to the lead they got in that game, and lost the two subsequent games afterwards against winnable teams in Calgary and Columbus. They followed up back to back shutouts with eight straight losses. Despite the incompetence of the general manager in that he refused to trade for a top defenseman, no one stepped up when the team needed it most.
Adam Pelech had an opportunity to be a top pair defenseman and blew it. He was notorious for own goals this season. No one should expect Nick Leddy to carry the defense with almost everyone around him refusing to carry their own wight. That takes a toll on you, and it showed with his horrendous rating. The team was always a step behind the opposition.
Winning puck battles was an issue along with protecting the front of the net. There seemed to be a lack of overall work ethic around the team. Not to mention, hardly anyone cares about hockey in Brooklyn and the team has no connections in the city. “Why should I care to perform if my audience doesn’t care about what I’m doing?”
It has the same effect that it would on that student who walks into that math test knowing his parents or his teacher are indifferent to his performance on the test. Even if the student does care about the test, he loses morale knowing that no one else does.
The Islanders care about hockey. The players have devoted the best years of their lives to the game. Yet, they seem to have little desire to do well, and they shouldn’t need a season ending injury or a national tragedy to rile them up. Getting a paycheck and an opportunity to play 82 games a year is enough for the Islanders.
They had a good enough roster, but they weren’t filled with great minds. The fans can blame the front office all they want, but they need to, at the very least, consider that the ones responsible for putting pucks in the back of the net (and keeping them out of their own) may have something to do with the abysmal season most fans are ready to forget.