The most obvious improvement from last season to this one for the Islanders has come in their defensive play. Look no further than goals against: Last season, the Islanders allowed 293, the most in the NHL since 2007. This season, the 98 goals they’ve allowed in their first 35 games are the third fewest in the league.
The Islanders reconvene for practice on Thursday morning following the NHL’s three-day Christmas break before facing the Senators on Friday night at Barclays Center and then traveling to Toronto on Saturday night for their first meeting with the Maple Leafs and ex-captain John Tavares.
The defensemen, of course, are not solely responsible for the improved defensive play, it has been a team effort with better performances from goalies Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner and the forwards working well within the structure to backcheck and support the defensemen.
“Yeah, I think that’s a combination of the forwards and the defense,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “I think they’ve learned to defend better. That’s an area where (the defensemen) have gotten more help from the forwards as well. They’ve been around the net. They’ve been much better.”
Trotz and new president/general manager Lou Lamoriello were adamant after being hired last offseason that fixing the defense would be a relatively simple job, no matter how unlikely that sounded. But, for the most part, the Islanders defensemen have been part of a structurally sound system that places them in the right position and works to keep the opposition’s shots to the outside while limiting the rebound opportunities.
It’s not perfect, of course. The Islanders don’t have a classic, top-pair shutdown defenseman, though Johnny Boychuk, at age 34, is having a great bounce-back season from injury. He has regained his spot on the top pair with offensive-minded Nick Leddy and has provided an anchor for the blue-line corps.
Ryan Pulock (two goals, 13 assists) and Scott Mayfield (three goals, 10 assists) are also vastly more reliable defenders this season and, earlier in the campaign, Mayfield was the most consistent offensive producer among the defensemen.
Leddy (one goal, nine assists) had a nightmare of a last season with an NHL-worst minus-42, as flawed as that statistic can be. He’s a minus-8 this season but the real complaint is that his offensive production, particularly on the power play, has been spotty. Ditto for Thomas Hickey (four assists) while Adam Pelech (three goals, four assists, plus-9) has struggled the most defensively.
Plan for improvement: Toews, 24, made his NHL debut with an impressively poised 18:05 in Sunday night’s 3-1 win at Dallas. His skating and stickhandling provide an enticing promise of offensive production and a future power-play quarterback. The Islanders’ best route to improvement over the rest of the season is to have him among the top-six defensemen.
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