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Nick Leddy a defensive plus, not a minus, in Barry Trotz's system

The Islanders' defenseman has gone from a league-worst minus-42 last season to even by thinking defense first.

Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy (2) comes to celebrate

Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy (2) comes to celebrate with left wing Anthony Beauvillier (18) and defenseman Devon Toews (25) after a goal during the second period of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Friday, April 12, 2019 at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

PITTSBURGH — If you’re looking for one player on the Islanders' roster who embodies the team’s turnaround from last season under new coach Barry Trotz, defenseman Nick Leddy has to be the guy.

Leddy had the NHL’s worst plus/minus rating in 2017-18 — a truly ugly minus-42 — as the Islanders allowed 293 goals, the most of any team in the 31-team league. But playing under Trotz’s defensive system in 2018-19, the Isles completely reversed their defensive record, allowing 191 goals, the fewest in the league in the regular season. And Leddy, the 28-year-old Eden Prairie, Minnesota native, finished the season even — on ice for as many even-strength or shorthanded goals by the Islanders as against.

“Last year, in the plus/minus category, [Leddy] had the green jacket,’’ Trotz said Tuesday at the Islanders’ morning skate at PPG Paints Arena, before they tried to close out the Pittsburgh Penguins with a victory in Game 4 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series.

Trotz said Leddy’s plus/minus in 2017-18 was not an indictment of the defenseman’s individual performance but rather a reflection of how things went for the team as a whole.

“Nick, last year — just the way the team played — he got all the important matchups, he got all the important minutes,’’ Trotz said. “He got the empty-net [goals against] that cause you to have the plus/minus go down.’’

Trotz said he talked with Leddy over the summer and told him not to stress out over his plus/minus. He promised him that the number would be better this year, and Leddy would still get “a lot of primary matchups.’’ Leddy bought in, the coach said.

For Leddy, buying in meant committing to always thinking defense first, which ultimately led to a significant dip in his offensive numbers. He finished with four goals, 22 assists and 26 points. The assists and points were the fewest he’s had in a full, 82-game season in his nine-year career; the goals were the second-lowest of his career — the lowest since he had three in his second full season in 2011-12 with the Chicago Blackhawks. Leddy scored a goal in Game 1 against the Penguins.

But Leddy, who had 10 goals and 42 points last season and has averaged eight goals and 33 points in five seasons with the Islanders, said he didn’t mind sacrificing some offense if it meant helping the team win more.

“I think, for me, the new system helped me out a lot,’’ Leddy said. “It taught me a lot about — not a lot, just, you know — being really sound defensively, and taking your chances offensively, a little less. But honestly, I think I really tried to focus, good defense, and whatever I could on the defensive side to help the team win.’’

Trotz was asked what he thought of the plus/minus statistic overall in terms of evaluating players like Leddy.

“It’s sometimes overblown,’’ he said. “Mitch Korn [the Isles’ director of goaltending] said Dominik Hasek said this to him: ‘The top players in the league start the season minus-10. Because you get a minus when you’re on the power play and you get a shorthanded goal against; you get a minus late in the game, for empty-net goals [against].’ And so he always said the very top players on every team basically start minus-10 every year. And it’s probably fairly true to form.’’

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