The Islanders Keep Fighting, and I Don’t Know What to Make of It

ELMONT, NY - DECEMBER 16: New York Islanders Left Wing Matt Martin (17) and Boston Bruins Left Wing Nick Foligno (17) fight during the second period of the National Hockey League game between the Boston Bruins and the New York Islanders on December 16, 2021, at UBS Arena in Elmont, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The New York Islanders are having a rough season. They are last in the Metropolitan Divison, sitting at 7-12-5 through 24 games. They would need a quick turnaround and a lengthy point streak to get back on track for a playoff spot. Coach Barry Trotz runs a defense-first system, which requires players to make smart plays and play as a team. Something that is knocking the Islanders off their own game is the number of penalty minutes they have taken this year. The Islanders rank 7th in team penalty minutes, a far cry from allowing the second-least amount of powerplays last season. This year, many of the penalty minutes come from the steep increase in fighting by the Isles. Their ten fights in 24 games are more than the past two regular seasons combined. Is the fighting affecting the Islanders’ season? Or is it indifferent to the outcome of the games but highlighting the frustration from a struggling team?

Fighting was once a huge part of hockey, with teams designating big looming players, known as goons, to intimidate and provoke the other team. Today’s NHL has scaled back on the heavy hits and violence to prevent the likelihood of brain injuries, like CTE.

Looking back on some of the most notorious hockey fights in the sport’s history, so many of them wouldn’t fly in the current NHL. Like, Mike Milbury climbing into the stands and beating a spectator with his shoe in 1979. Or the brutal battles between the Colorado Avalanche and Detriot Red Wings in the 1996 and 1997 playoffs.

Cons of Fighting

To further fade out fighting from the game, the NHL established specific rules on fighting, and violations would result in a five-minute major for that player. For example, the instigator rule has been excessively enforced by referees throughout this season.

The instigator rule was added to the NHL rule book in 1992. It states that ” A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major for fighting and a ten-minute misconduct.”

Players now risk missing full periods if they are considered an instigator to a fight by a referee.

For the Islanders, it doesn’t make much sense to fight at all. Already shorthanded to start the season, losing any piece of their lineup spoils Trotz’s strategy. Trotz needs his players to give a lot of energy and buy-in to how he wants them to play. Sure, Zdeno Chara has fought three of the ten fights this season, but missing him on the ice leaves the defense shorthanded. Rather than firing the Islanders up, it causes more headaches for the coaching staff.

Since the 2010-11 season, the Islanders have fought more during a losing season. Seemingly, the team is at its messiest when the fighting totals are upwards of 20. In that 2010-11 season, the Islanders fought 68 times, posting a record of 30-39-13. The Isles fired coach Scott Gordon after a 4-10-3 record, replacing him with Jack Capuano.

They would have 39 fights three seasons later as they finished eighth in the newly formed Metropolitan Division. The team was between playoff runs, and John Tavares was injured during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The 2015-16 Islanders are the team to have over 20 fights in one season. Ironically, they made the playoffs that year but lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. It was also the last full season Capuano coached.

With the Islanders having ten fights in 24 games, the team is resetting the curve. While they fought 16 and 17 times in the first two years under Trotz, that number lowered to five for each of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. Three months into this year, the Islanders are already at ten, plus they are currently in last place in the Metro Division.

Pros of Fighting

Even though fighting is less frequent in today’s game, many unwritten rules are still settled by dropping the gloves. Chara and winger Matt Martin are no strangers to fighting. Martin has 130 fights in his career, while Chara has 95. For Martin and Chara, fights are almost unavoidable. In six separate seasons, Martin has surpassed double-digits in his fight totals. Chara only topped ten fights during the 2001-02 season but has at least fought once in each season of his 24-year career. The Islanders can’t escape on ice scraps when Martin and Chara can fight at any time.

While the Islanders have been successful over the past few seasons, they placed last in the Atlantic Division from the 2007-08 season to the 2011-12 season. They were 159-198-53 over those five years and lacked both a star and an identity at that time. Islander fans were paranoid that the NHL didn’t care about their favorite team.

During the 2010-11 season, the Islanders faced the Pittsburg Penguins, with the game erupting into a brawl following the Islanders taking an early 3-0 lead. The Islanders would eventually win 9-3, but the game broke the single-game record for penalty minutes at 346. In the weeks leading up to the game, the Penguins were not punished for borderline illegal hits.

Max Talbot concussed Blake Comeau from a hit to the head the week prior. That first game was further intensified by the Islanders accusing the Pens of running into injury-prone goaltender Rick DiPietro. DiPietro ended up fighting and losing to Penguins goalie Brent Johnson, who fractured DP’s face with one punch. When the league did nothing, the Islanders decided to take it into their own hands the following week.

Former Islanders play-by-play announcer Howie Rose ripped the NHL during a post-game segment. Rose said that the lack of action from the NHL feels like they treat the non-elite teams with less respect.

Howie Rose and Butch Goring post-game after 9-3 Islanders win. 2/14/2011

The Islanders added Evgeni Nabokov in the 2011 offseason, who paved the way for their first playoff run in six years. While the team fought when they didn’t have an identity, they stood up for themselves and eventually became contenders. The fighting gave the team an underdog mentality that fueled them to be a winning team.

The Verdict

The recent fights have shown me that the Islanders are disgruntled in their current position. While the excuse at the beginning of the season was the 13-game road streak, they are not winning enough to make a playoff run. The Islanders don’t have an identity this season, and the fights are meant to energize the team and show effort.

The argument about how effective the fights are to the team’s overall record is still up in the air. The Islanders usually don’t have a good season when they fight a lot, but maybe a new team identity can turn this year around. Nothing is impossible in the NHL, with the St. Louis Blues 2018-19 Stanley Cup victory still fresh in everyone’s mind. The Blues were in last place on January 1st that season and made a miracle run to the Cup Final. Scarily enough, the Islanders will be in the same situation in two weeks’ time.

What do you think of fighting in the NHL? Leave your comment below!

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