If the Islanders are going to get into the NHL’s final four, their deep group of solid defensemen will need to step up this season.
The New York Islanders have high hopes for the 2021 season and rightfully so. They showed they can skate with the big boys last year and have a great opportunity in this shortened, realigned season to do some serious damage.
How will their group of defensemen look this season? And how will they help the team reach their ultimate goals? Let’s take a look in the second part of our season preview series.
The defense has been the Islanders’ greatest strength and does generate confidence moving into the 2021 season, but changes have been made and it’s worth taking a closer look at this group.
First is an interesting blueliner who’ll be expected to take the next step for the Islanders this season: Sebastian Aho. Aho will be turning 25 years old in February and hasn’t played in an NHL game since the 2017-18 season.
No, Aho probably won’t be an everyday player for the Islanders, but if he is their seventh defenseman, he must do well since guys like Johnny Boychuk and Thomas Hickey are no longer there to provide depth.
It looks like Aho will be on the roster come opening night, and it’ll be interesting to see how Trotz elects to use him.
Next up is another inexperienced youngster who made his NHL debut last season, Noah Dobson. The RHD who turned 21 at the beginning of January will be a regular in the Islanders’ blue line as the likely everyday number three RHD.
However, Dobson is a former 12th overall pick and is expected to eventually become one of the team’s top blueliners. That makes this season crucial for his development.
Next we have Dobson’s likely linemate, Andy Greene.
Greene, a 38-year-old LHD, was traded to the Islanders last season after having spent the first 14 years of his career with the New Jersey Devils and recently re-signed with New York on a team-friendly one-year deal.
Greene is an experienced defenseman who’s still very serviceable and is expected to be a fantastic mentor to Dobson.
Nick Leddy, who didn’t have the best season last year, will be tasked with filling the shoes of Devon Toews, who was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in October, as the team’s second LHD.
Leddy struggled most when playing with Boychuk, so the prospect of the 29-year-old having a bounce-back season isn’t outlandish. Here’s why.
Leddy will likely play most of his minutes alongside Scott Mayfield, who played great hockey alongside Toews last season. Leddy is no Toews, but they do have similar playing styles, so Mayfield shouldn’t have too much trouble adjusting to the change.
Mayfield took some major strides last season, so the downgrade in his partner shouldn’t have much of a detrimental effect on the 28-year-old’s game.
If he can be as good as he was last season, or even better, the Islanders’ top-four blueliners are going to look sharp for yet another year.
Adam Pelech emerged as the team’s number one LHD and their best shutdown defenseman. His importance to the team became that much clearer when he missed the last 30 games of the regular season with an Achilles injury.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), that’s when the Islanders struggled most, going 10-13-7. Pelech staying healthy is crucial to the Islanders’ success, as he is a staple in a defensive unit that is not as effective when he’s missing.
Lastly is Pelech’s partner, Ryan Pulock. Pulock, the team’s best overall defenseman, is the Islanders’ most offensively-gifted defenseman, recording a career-high 10 goals as well as 25 assists last season.
He was on track to set career-highs in assists and points, as well.
Pulock will look to further his success alongside Pelech this year, but look to see improvement from the 26-year-old on the power play, as well.
Pulock, who has a lethal slapshot, plays on the team’s first power play unit and if guys like Barzal and Lee can get going and improve their play there, Pulock will become an even more dangerous player.