If the New York Islanders are to make a playoff appearance and win a round, improving the defense must be the biggest priority.
While some people blame the goaltenders, Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss, the New York Islanders as a whole hasn’t played strong defense. Thanks to that, they boast a slightly above average of 20-15-4 heading into 2018.
Overall, the Isles have allowed 3.47 goals against per game, the second highest in the NHL behind Arizona. Part of the problem is that the Islanders are also sixth in shots against per game at 32.95. If it wasn’t for the offense, these defensive woes would be the reason the Isles would be at the bottom of the league.
So what can be done to improve the defense? A change of staff is the most obvious answer. After Travis Hamonic was traded back at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft in June, a void was left and never filled at the top-four defense roll. The expected lineup coming into the season was Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk leading the pack. Calvin De Haan would stand as the third most reliable defenseman. Finally, the last pairing would be a mix of Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Ryan Pulock, Thomas Hickey or Dennis Seidenberg. It sounds alright, at best, on paper.
However, that original plan has clearly not worked. De Haan is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury sustained against the Los Angeles Kings.
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The next step is still being sorted out for the former first-round pick. To compound pressure on the young defense, Boychuk has found his way to the IR list as well. The repair from within is officially underway thanks to the call-up of fifth-round pick Sebastian Aho. The 21-year old rookie collected 20 points in 29 AHL games and made his debut against the Colorado Avalanche on New Year’s Eve.
The next logical player to be called up if needed would be standout Devon Toews. The defenseman recorded the second fastest time ever at the fastest skater competition at the 2017 AHL All-Star weekend.
To improve externally would now be a challenge for General Manager Garth Snow. Due to the injuries to the Islanders lineup, he has no leverage to pull off a trade. The draft picks Snow acquired in the Hamonic trade though could make it possible if he finds the right partner. He could package the picks with a struggling prospect like Michael Dal Colle to acquire a steady defenseman.
There are a couple ways Snow can go about this. He could trade for a defensive forward in hopes to improve the penalty kill. The special teams unit fell on hard times after starting strong and is currently at a 74.8 percen conversion rate, another category where the Islanders are second to last in the league. A center they could target would need to be someone who plays a 200-foot game consistently. Someone of that nature would be Luke Glendening of the Detroit Red Wings. The thing to look for is a player that fills a role well on a team that is rebuilding or struggling. Due to the nature of the team, it is understandable why that organization would make a trade. Bleacher Report’s Carol Schram ranked Glendening the 10th best penalty killer of the 2016-17 season.
Another route is to trade for a defenseman. Getting Oliver Ekman-Larsson in an Islanders uniform could be a great addition. However, adding Niklas Hjalmarsson, another Coyotes defenseman, would add both veteran and playoff experience to a growing defense core. The Coyotes seem like a viable trade partner due to their position in the standings. Being in a rebuilding state, as long as they don’t get fleeced in a deal, Arizona wouldn’t find themselves with much criticism making a mid-season move.
Perhaps a different defenseman like Mark Pysyk of the Florida Panthers could serve well. The Panthers have not played well this season and could make a trade to try and correct the problem. Pysyk is exactly what the Islanders need in the absence of the bigger names. He can easily eat up anywhere from 16-20 minutes per night including specialty teams time. Pysyk is another name that Bleacher Report ranked as one of the top-10 penalty killers of the 2016-17 season.
Regardless of how they do it, the Islanders need to upgrade the defense. In the event they don’t make it to the playoffs or make it and don’t advance, it will be two years without a playoff series win. They will begin to look more like a joke every day they don’t improve. This is why it is vital for Snow to improve the team in any way possible. The offense cannot be asked to score five or more goals every night, so the defense has to be fixed immediately.