Continuing our look at the Islanders by position, today we’re breaking down the defense.
This offseason could have been one for major upheaval and angst when considering the Isles’ defense. Travis Hamonic’s recommitment to the team last week makes for a much smoother offseason for general manager Garth Snow when it comes to his defensemen, but there’s a catch.
Instead of worrying whether youngsters like Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech could fill the void left by Hamonic’s requested departure, Snow now has to be concerned whether there’s enough ice time for Pulock and Pelech, who both showed they can handle NHL minutes this past season.
There’s seven defensemen for six spots. That’s not as big a concern as wondering how Hamonic’s heavy minutes would be filled, but still it’s not ideal to have either of your promising 21-year-olds as a healthy scratch.
Here’s the full list, with references to advanced numbers courtesy of Hockey Analysis and contract numbers from General Fanager:
— It may be hard to remember that Nick Leddy is still only 25. He’s worked his way rather seamlessly into being the Islanders’ most essential defenseman, much the way he seamlessly works the puck up the ice with his terrific skating.
Leddy added top power-play unit responsibilities to his repertoire this season and contributed 19 power-play points, tied for second on the team. It was frustrating to plenty of Isles fans not to have Johnny Boychuk’s big slap shot (or Pulock’s once he was called up) at the point, but Leddy worked well at times as a quick distributor.
He could still shoot a bit more (121 total shots for a player who averaged 2:45 a game of power play ice time isn’t great), but his skills are crucial and yet not always evident to us untrained observers.
This year was the first of Leddy’s seven-year, $38.5 million deal. Having six more seasons at a $5.5 million average cap hit may end up being one of Snow’s master strokes.
— Boychuk was also in the first season of his seven-year deal and the results were a bit more mixed. His (along with the Isles’ overall) possession numbers dropped rather starkly from his first Islanders season. Boychuk and Leddy were stapled together for nearly all of 2014-15 but Jack Capuano split them apart frequently this past season, when Boychuk played primarily with Calvin de Haan over the second half of the year and in the playoffs.
But Boychuk’s advanced metrics were below-average with both of those partners (and terrible with Thomas Hickey, who also got some time on Boychuk’s left). Boychuk, now 32, said he was healthy after the postseason run in which he struggled mightily with both the Panthers’ size up front and the Lightning’s speed up front.
Boychuk didn’t have a point in 11 playoff games after posting 25 in the regular season. As we said, he’s 32, which would make him by far the oldest Islander defenseman among the group returning next season.
The Islanders already monitor his minutes, as exemplified by his relatively paltry (58 seconds per game) power-play time this past season. He led the team in averaging 2:20 on the penalty kill, which was by far the most consistent aspect of the Islanders’ season, so there’s likely no changing that when longing for Boychuk’s big slapper on the power play. He’s too important in his own end.
What you may see next season, especially with Hamonic back, is less rigorous even-strength matchups for Boychuk, whether he’s paired with Leddy, de Haan, Hickey or even Pelech. He may simply be counted on less to provide offense, despite the thrust of Capuano’s system to have the defense up in the play and moving the puck in transition.
— We’ve spilled plenty of ink/web space on Hamonic of late, so we’ll keep this short. The Islanders need him for a variety of reasons: His advanced numbers stayed incredibly consistent from 2014-15 to this year, even with the overall slide by the team in that area; his contract is perhaps the best in the NHL for a defenseman who leads his team in ice time and he’s one of the real emotional leaders of a team that doesn’t have many and will have one fewer when Kyle Okposo departs in free agency.
— De Haan did not end this season in Capuano’s dog house, as he did in 2014-15, which is good. De Haan wasn’t quite as steady as he was last season, but still a good possession player on a poor possession team and one who was relatively consistent switching between Boychuk and Hamonic at even strength.
De Haan also played a big role in the team’s penalty kill, where his penchant for blocking shots (usually) helped — he was fourth in the league with 198 blocks, a stat that coaches still like though most others do not.
He, like Leddy and Hamonic, is still only 25, with one more year left on a deal at $1.97 million annual average value and de Haan will still be a restricted free agent after that.
He’ll likely never be a big-time scorer, but steady young defensemen are never bad to have.
— Hickey may have taken the biggest step forward of any Isles defenseman this season, having almost all to do with his performance over the final month.
From his overtime winner in Washington to clinch a playoff berth to the end of the Tampa series, Hickey played the way the Isles want their defensemen to play: moving with speed up the ice and forcing opposing forwards into uncomfortable defending positions.
Hickey also didn’t shy away from the physical stuff, unloading on Jonathan Drouin in Game 3 against the Lightning — of course, that most pivotal game turned on Brian Boyle’s hit on Hickey that left him out of the play as Boyle scored the overtime winner.
But the 27-year-old Hickey led Isles defensemen in scoring in the postseason and showed he belongs in the top six once again.
— Pulock took two call-ups to really show what he can do and, as with most 21-year-old defensemen, there were still hiccups. But he shined in some big moments in the first round before injuring his shoulder (no surgery needed) and, had the Hamonic deal still been a factor this offseason, the organization was certainly willing to give Pulock a shot at being a top-four defenseman.
That will have to wait. But it seems almost certain he’ll be in the top six when the 2016-17 season begins, a third-pair player at even strength who will get a chance to pile up power-play numbers alongside Leddy on the first unit.
— Pelech is fully healed from his bout with thoracic outlet syndrome, but those three lost months may cost him on the depth chart. He’s still going to have to prove himself again in training camp and even then there may not be a spot for him; if he’s not in the top six out of camp he’ll be back in Bridgeport to keep his minutes up.
— Scott Mayfield got in six games of NHL work this season, again showing that he’s a physical force and that his footwork and skating need improvement to be an NHL regular. He’s a restricted free agent who’ll get a contract for sure and may, depending on whom the Isles bring in, start next season as the No. 7 guy on the depth chart. That can be a blessing — hey, you’re in the NHL! — and a curse, as being a healthy scratch for weeks on end shows the organization values you, but only to a certain point.
— Brian Strait played 170 games over four seasons with the Isles and he was very much what a seventh defenseman is in today’s NHL: Not consistent enough to be a regular but good enough to plug the holes that every team has to fill.
Once Pelech was hurt, Strait was the only left-handed defenseman in the system; there’s an argument to be made that playing Strait on the right side rather than calling up Pulock showed a bit of bias from Capuano, but this season especially the difference wasn’t all that great.
The Islanders are almost certainly not bringing Strait back. He was here for four years and the Islanders made the playoffs in three of them, coincidence or no. He’ll get a job somewhere else for sure, being only 28 and not commanding a big salary.
— Marek Zidlicky had some good moments at age 39, the latest veteran defenseman on the tail end of a solid NHL career to stop by the Island. It’s uncertain if he’ll retire, but he won’t be back for another tour.
As it looks now, very early in the offseason, the Isles’ defense appears quite stable heading into next season. Considering the moves Snow has to make to juggle his forward group, that’s a huge relief.