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Islanders mixing and matching defensive pairings in early going

Carolina Hurricanes' Steven Lorentz (78) reaches for the

Carolina Hurricanes' Steven Lorentz (78) reaches for the puck controlled by Islanders' Adam Pelech (3) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.  Credit: AP/Karl B DeBlaker

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Defensemen always seem to wear a little, wry smile every time they face multiple questions making a big deal about new pairings. Because, to them, it’s just the opposite.

No big deal.

"For me, it doesn’t change anything," said Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech, suddenly split, at least temporarily, from longtime partner Ryan Pulock. "We’re all pretty comfortable playing with one another. It’s been the same group together here for a few years now."

The topic dominated the Islanders media access heading into Thursday night’s game against the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena – the fourth stop on a 13-game road trip – after coach Barry Trotz switched all his pairings starting in the second period of Tuesday night’s 4-1 win at Chicago.

He stuck with the changes at Thursday’s full-team morning skate as he had Pelech with Scott Mayfield, Zdeno Chara with Pulock and Andy Greene reunited with Noah Dobson, an effective pairing from last season. Trotz started the first three games (1-2-0) with Chara, the 44-year-old future Hall of Famer, working with Dobson while Greene was paired with Mayfield.

"No differences in communication," Pelech said. "Pully and Scotty are both guys that talk a ton and make it pretty easy for their D partner."

Trotz acknowledged the coaching staff’s move to switch up the pairings on Tuesday was "reactionary." At the same time, though, trying out different combinations was something that had been discussed early in training camp and Pelech and Pulock were deliberately used with other partners during the preseason.

"We had talked about this," Trotz said. "We wanted the pairings to bake as long as possible. We just felt, ‘Let’s change it up. Let’s see if we like a little different look.’"

New pairings were a necessity in training camp after Nick Leddy, a slick-skating puck mover, was traded to the Red Wings for salary-cap purposes and the 6-9, 250-pound Chara was brought in as a free agent.

Chara was initially paired with Dobson not only to serve as an on-ice partner, but to provide some mentorship to the third-year pro.

But the Islanders allowed 11 goals in losing their first two games as their pace of play was not fast enough. Chara was a minus-4 in Saturday’s 5-1 loss at Florida but that was more of a representation of the breakdown of the Islanders’ overall team defense, with the forwards not supporting enough.

The Islanders were again sluggish in the first period against Chicago but were bailed out as goalie Ilya Sorokin stopped all 18 shots he faced over the first 20 minutes.

Trotz noted that being more fluid with his defense pairings can be an advantage for road games, when the home team gets the last personnel changes during stoppages.

Sebastian Aho is also on the roster as an extra defenseman and Trotz has said he’ll look to get him into a game as well.

And just because Trotz started with re-arranged combinations on Thursday doesn’t mean he’ll be any more locked into these defense pairs.

But, Trotz said he saw some instant benefits on Tuesday when he did switch the pairings.

"I think you’re going to see a multitude of that," Trotz said. "What it did, it sort of settled Dobber down, he looked very comfortable. He’s played with Greenie. I think it gave Z really good comfort when he played with Pully and Mayfield. It’s a good look. I think you’re going to see a little more of that mix-and-match going forward, especially on the road. We can’t get our pairs out there that we want so it might be a little more mix and match."

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