RALEIGH, N.C. -- Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, you'd have had a difficult time finding a coach who'd pair two defensemen shorter than 6 feet. It goes against the big, physical blueliner mentality that most in the NHL have.
But Jack Capuano did it with Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey, both generously listed at 5-10. The result has been a second-pair combo who lead the Isles in plus-minus as well as the advanced statistic known as "Corsi,'' which measures total shots -- including those blocked and missed -- for and against while a player is on the ice.
"It's about puck possession and about being on the right side of the puck,'' Hickey said. "When you have the puck and you can move it quickly, that's as important as the physical side.''
Neither of them shies from the physical aspects, though Hickey, 23, isn't built quite as solidly as his older counterpart. But Hickey, in his first NHL season, has learned a lot about positioning and skating from the quiet, happy-go-lucky Visnovsky, 36. The pair has worked well together the last two months.
"He's such a positive guy, so it's mostly 'good job' or 'keep doing that,' '' Hickey said. "You see the decisions he makes, when to jump into the play and when we switch sides inside the zone to confuse the coverage. I'm picking up a lot.''
And Visnovsky, the guy who supposedly didn't want to be an Islander, not only has blended in well but might be the veteran leader of a very young defense if Mark Streit does not return.
"When I came here, I saw this was a very good team, and I'm very happy I will be here two more years,'' said Visnovsky, who has 14 points and a team-high plus-12 rating.
The most important aspect of the Visnovsky-Hickey pairing working well is alleviating some of the huge minutes Streit had been playing at even strength. His minus-15 rating is the worst on the team. With the return of Brian Strait, Capuano has a six-man defensive alignment with which he's quite happy.
"Viz and Hickey have gotten more comfortable with one another, and that leads to confidence,'' Capuano said. "They've been good for one another.''