The New York Islanders Know What the Problem Is
Mar 24, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Cameron Gaunce (R) celebrates after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during the second period at the PPG PAINTS Arena. The Islanders won 4-3 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The question now becomes whether New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow will come up with a way to fix it.

If it’s broke, fix it. After failing to make the playoffs by a measly point, the New York Islanders seek to correct the problems that plagued them last season — most notably, a defense that didn’t come close to reaching its potential.

While Islanders general manager Garth Snow will have his hands full with more pressing long-term issues (i.e. locking up franchise center John Tavares before he hits the open market), it’s his underperforming defense that is the team’s largest variable for the upcoming season.

The Isles may have been built on defense, but that simply didn’t translate into sustained production. While not completely their fault, this unit gave up 2.9 goals per game, which was the eighth-worst mark in the league. As Arthur Staple of Newsday writes, “This was not a banner year for the team’s blue line corps.”

There’s something puzzling about the unit’s struggles: It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not uncommon to hear bloggers and fans praising the team’s depth, and for good reason: the Isles pretty much adopted the mantra of “next man up” last season. When a slew of injuries hit, there were plenty of guys to pick up the slack.

But that’s underscoring the problem, which, aptly put, is awfully similar to the New York Mets’ well-documented pitching issues. Heading into the ‘17 season, the Mets’ starting rotation was considered “generational” by some, and we even speculated that it could be the best of all time. However, it’s been far from the case, as the staff has been the worst in the bigs. Clearly, there’s an obvious discrepancy in terms of talent, but the parallels remain.

“It would be as He recognizes the problem. Now he just needs to execute.”

Snow and Mets general manager Sandy Alderson are faced with the same question: What to do about a group that’s much better than it’s performed? There are three options, says one former front office executive: a team can (a) wait it out, working with the unit to ensure it improves; (b) make some changes — both major and minor — to the unit; or (c) make huge changes that completely alter the unit.

The third option is scarcely used, with the exception of a team during the rebuilding period. The first option is used much more often, primarily because front office executives tend to be pretty stubborn and value their homegrown guys a lot (i.e. Rafael Montero).

Which brings us to the second option: making changes to bolster the unit. It was Albert Einstein who once said that insanity is doing things over and over again and expecting different results. The Islanders’ defense has remained largely intact over the years, which is great if they’re bringing them to the Stanley Cup finals every year, but not so great if they’re not. And they’re not.

Said defenseman Nick Leddy, perhaps on behalf of the entire group, “It wasn’t my best year … I’ve got to be better and I own that.” Will Garth Snow own that, too?

It’s become increasingly likely in recent weeks that the Isles will move a defenseman — possibly for another defenseman, but much more likely for a forward. This wouldn’t only be a smart idea, but a necessary one at that. With a bevy of blue liners and the need for a top-6 forward, this would make complete sense.

What complicates this situation is the looming expansion draft, which will take place in late June. The Vegas Golden Knights will select the contract of one unprotected Islanders player, and a defenseman, possibly Calvin de Haan or even Ryan Pulock, will be the likely choice.

Which makes it all the more crucial to get something in return. With the recent re-signing of veteran Dennis Seidenberg, the Isles don’t have any unrestricted free agents. If they want to shake things up — which they should — it’s going to have to be via a trade. If only the Isles get a worthwhile offer…

“It wasn’t my best year … I’ve got to be better and I own that.”

As far as trades go, you’ve gotta give to get. Some — like Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield — simply have too low of a ceiling and too much inexperience. Meanwhile, guys like Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk are signed to huge contracts, while Thomas Hickey realistically doesn’t have much value, despite being a model for consistency. There are, however, there are three guys who are seemingly susceptible to trade talks: Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan and Ryan Pulock.

Hamonic is the most intriguing of the trio, for a multitude of reasons. He’s signed to a team-friendly deal and is still relatively young. He’s capable of logging big minutes and is physically tough. But he’s also coming off the worst season of his career, and earned the unsightly designation as one of the league’s worst defensemen last season: He tallied a mere 14 points and reverted to his old undisciplined ways (in terms of penalties).

There were rumors that he’d be traded last offseason; now, many personalities, like SNY’s Andy Graziano, speculate that he has little to no value. Of course, that’s not 100 percent certain. NHL teams will pay a small fortune for budding defensemen, and Hamonic fits the bill. The St. Malo native was linked to the Avalanche by Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger of TSN last week.

Meanwhile, de Haan enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2016-17. He’s always been a low-maintenance guy, but he really came into his own last season — especially at the IIHF tournament. He was recently thrust into the rumor mill, where the Red Wings reportedly have some interest.

Finally, Pulock has been a bit of an anomaly. He’s the team’s top defensive prospect and a former top pick. He competed in a couple of playoff games last season and showcased his heavy (in the tune of 100+ MPH) point shot. Despite this, he never got the chance to prove anything at the NHL level. For whatever reason, he spent the entire 2016-17 campaign in Bridgeport.

On the other side of the coin, packaging a couple of defensemen together could warrant a sizeable return. The historically anemic Avalanche have been shopping Matt Duchene for months. Meanwhile, the Oilers could be a good trade partner, as they’ll need to lock up two of their top players to long term deals, potentially making Jordan Eberle a salary cap casualty.

It’s often said that teams shouldn’t force a trade, and that rings true even for the Islanders. That being said, it would be a shame if Snow squanders a chance to move some guys around. He recognizes the problem. Now he just needs to execute on it.

Justin Weiss is a staff editor at Elite Sports New York, where he covers the New York Islanders and Brooklyn Cyclones. In 2016, he received a Quill Award for Freelance Journalism. He has written for the Long Island Herald, FanSided and YardBarker.