The Islanders’ struggles on the defensive end of the puck this past season skyrocketed, and the fourth line bears a significant amount of responsibility.Two years ago, the New York Islanders soared off into the 2015-16 postseason with the fourth-best penalty kill and 11th lowest goals-allowed in the NHL. The core of Nikolay Kulemin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck were largely responsible for a solid overall defensive effort (plus the then-emergence of Thomas Greiss).
Two-thirds of that core finished the 2017-18 season with strong regressions in their numbers, including roughly a 5 percent decrease in their Corsi-for and Fenwick-for possession metrics. Both Clutterbuck and Cizikas remained crucial components in the Isles penalty-kill, which finished 31st overall (the Isles also finished 31st overall in goals allowed).
For most of the season, the top-six rightfully had a lot of the spotlight for the Islanders, which overshadowed the concern of the team’s overall inept defense. Right at the end of 2017 is when the collapse slowly began, with the team losing 6-5 to the Ottawa Senators in an embarrassing defensive meltdown.
This coming July it will have been three years since the Islanders unofficially retired the “MC^2” line. Since then, the fourth line has mostly featured the inclusion of Kulemin, and the trio shouldered the Isles responsibilities on the penalty kill and in the defensive zone.
The remaining bash brothers continued the same style of play — a slow, aggressive forecheck centered around the dump & chase.
When Kulemin went down with an injury in a November contest against the Edmonton Oilers, the Isles knew they were losing a big part of their PK. Add the Calvin de Haan injury that followed in December and you have a hurt PK and defensive corps.
While the Isles fourth line might indeed have some defensive talent, it’s never a good sign for a team to rely so heavily on their bottom-six for such critical defensive assignment. Rather than make the necessary adjustments, the same core of Clutterbuck and Cizikas continued to see defensive zone draws as their numbers worsened more and more, all while the line was in the thick of an identity crisis.
The bottom line is the coaching staff had options that weren’t explored well enough. Greg Cronin may benefit from the success of the past, but this season was inexcusable on an overall defensive standpoint.
The Ideal Fourth Line
Everything changed for Cizikas and Clutterbuck on January 20th, when Ross Johnston made his season debut in the Isles lineup on the wing of the two checkers.
Johnston’s game immediately complemented their style, and as long as Johnston played alongside Zeeker and Clutter, all was well with the checking line. The palpable revitalization was made even more noted when the Isles played the Golden Knights in Las Vegas and Johnston netted the game-winning goal in a surprising 2-1 victory.
The fourth line had failed to evolve for two years after Martin’s departure. Kulemin’s dynamic brought a new element to the table, but never really sparked both Cizikas and Clutterbuck in the same way. Rather than change their style of game, the Isles and the fourth line attempted to replicate Martin’s role through a rotating door of different wingers.
The Isles fourth line felt whole once more, but yet were still tasked with ensuring the Isles can close out narrow one-goal leads in the dying minute of the third period.
Having reinvented themselves, the fourth line will continue to prepare for the 2018-19 season as the coaching staff takes a long, hard look in the mirror on the most disappointing season in the last decade-plus.