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Islanders' new-look defense gets first chance

Travis Hamonic gets tangled with Sidney Crosby #87

Travis Hamonic gets tangled with Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Nassau Coliseum. (May 5, 2013) Credit: Getty

Mark Streit left the Islanders after last season, taking with him the 179 points he produced over four seasons with the team.

Even though there were plenty of capable defensemen on the free agent market, Islanders general manager Garth Snow decided to go with what he had on his roster and in the system to replace Streit's abilities.

Starting Tuesday night, the Islanders' new defense corps gets a chance to prove that Snow was smart to stand pat. The Islanders kick off their preseason schedule with split-squad games against the Flames in Calgary and Regina, Saskatchewan, with some new looks on D.

The longtime pair of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic is split -- Hamonic has been paired with Brian Strait since training camp began and those two will be part of the squad in Regina. MacDonald will likely skate in Calgary with Matt Donovan, the leading prospect candidate to make the squad after leading the AHL in scoring among defensemen last season.

"We definitely know there's a spot or two up for grabs," Donovan said after the Islanders practiced at Nassau Coliseum Monday. Donovan and Calvin de Haan, the former first-round pick who was sidelined all last season with a shoulder injury, have been skating with the rest of the prospects during camp, while the NHL vets have been in a different group.

"It'll be fun to get into the lineup with guys who have a lot of NHL experience," Donovan said, "and to play against some guys with experience. That's how you improve."

The Islanders were a jumbled mess on defense when the hasty, post-lockout camp began in January. Snow claimed three defensemen on waivers in the week leading up to the season; all three will likely make the team, and Strait, scooped off waivers from the Penguins, and Thomas Hickey, picked up from the Kings, are in Jack Capuano's plans to play major roles.

"Last year was just so many highs and lows," said Strait, who quickly emerged as a confident, reliable defenseman last season, earning a three-year, $2.25-million deal only to suffer a broken ankle that cost him two months. He returned for the final week of the season, then found himself playing with Hamonic as the top pair when MacDonald (broken hand) was lost in Game 4 of the Pittsburgh playoff series.

"It's nice to have that security, to come to camp for the first time in five years as a pro and know where I'll be living, where I'll be," Strait said. "That said, there's so much still to prove for me, to show I can handle the responsibility of being a shutdown D-man, playing with Travis, a guy who's done that so often in the past."

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