The Islanders have heard quite a bit from Jack Capuano and the coaching staff about defensive and neutral-zone play just two days into training camp. And that makes sense, because the Islanders' greatest failures in 2013-14 came in their half of the ice.
After too many breakdowns at even strength and on the penalty kill led to too many goals in the first third of last season, Capuano made a few "tweaks," as he called them, to the team's neutral- and defensive-zone coverage.
They had tried more of a man-to-man approach, but that drew defensemen away from the front of the net, and the goaltending wasn't strong enough to make up for any coverage lapses.
The changes helped, but the subpar goaltending kept the Isles from lowering their goals against. They ended up permitting 3.18 goals per game, third-worst in the NHL, and allowing 30 shots per game, which was 16th in the league.
"I think we just got smarter in the end five-on-five," Frans Nielsen said. "We tried to be aggressive down low, but other than that, we always had guys in front of the net, more guys in the shooting lane. Not as many pucks got through from the points. By doing that, we had more guys in front of the net to clear rebounds, so they didn't get any of those easy rebound goals. As soon as the puck came to the net, everybody was more compact."
The defensive structure changes yielded their best results during the final 20 games, when Capuano had a host of fresh faces from Bridgeport to fill the numerous holes left after John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Lubomir Visnovsky and others suffered injuries.
So it makes sense that Capuano is sticking with the changed formula to start this season. The goal is to limit shots against and also keep the front of the net well-covered, allowing the Isles to get out in transition with their considerable team speed.
"The consistency to carry that over from last year and a lot of it is execution, battle level, your willingness not to lose battles and those things," Tavares said. "It's all detail-oriented things where we need to be better. I think it's a defense that not only helps keep the puck out of our net, it also helps getting the puck back quicker and getting the puck back on offense."
The willingness to get into shooting lanes is something Capuano says he needs from his forwards. It's an old-fashioned desire, not a statistic that gets much traction in the analytic world, but the Islanders don't have the track record to let any of their forwards, no matter the talent level, escape responsibility.
"Guys have to do a better job of that. We have to be better playing that system, and certain guys have to be better at that," Capuano said. "We have guys used to playing center who are on the wing and they have to have that mentality now of getting in lanes, blocking shots, paying the price. That's what we're asking of these guys and they're going to have to do it."
The penalty-killing unit was ranked 29th last season, another area of defense in which Capuano's catchphrases such as "battle level" hit home. Nielsen, an integral part of the unit for the past five seasons, is particularly mindful of how bad the PK was last season.
"I think we were a little soft like that," Nielsen said of his fellow forwards and their shot-blocking ability. "I think when you see the top PK teams in the league, they have guys who go head-first into shots, just ruthless. And I think we gotta be a little more like that. From my experience on the power play, it's when you get shots through that you can get the PK moving and start moving pucks through the box."