The New York Islanders recently solidified their defensive unit as they acquired Zdeno Chara. It became clear that the team needed a left defenseman and also a defenseman that can affect both ends of the ice after Nick Leddy was traded at the beginning of the offseason to the Detroit Red Wings. The Chara signing doesn’t help the Islanders in both the voids however, the defensive unit now has depth and more importantly skaters that provide three strong pairings for the team.
The defensive unit last season allowed the Islanders to eliminate opponents as they allowed only 2.23 goals per game. With many of the key contributors from the previous season returning, what do the defensive pairings look like? Moreover, how will the Islanders’ defense change from last season with the new additions to the unit?
Ryan Pulock – Adam Pelech
The Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech defensive pairing is arguably the best in the NHL, especially on the defensive end of the ice. Last season, the duo combined for 8.6 defensive point shares and 179 blocked shots and were pivotal to the Islanders success in both the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs as they created turnovers in both the defensive and neutral zone to help set up the offense while also disrupting opponents passing and shooting lanes. It’s debatable between Pelech and Pulock who is the number one defenseman on the Islanders but both have proven to be integral to the team’s success in recent seasons and will continue to do so.
This offseason, the Islanders front office made it clear that the Pulock-Pelech pairing would be part of the foreseeable future as they signed Pelech to an eight-year, $46 million deal. For the upcoming season, the duo will not only lead the defensive unit as the top defensive pairing but arguably the roster as a whole with both defensemen being crucial to the team’s success.
Scott Mayfield – Zdeno Chara
Scott Mayfield and Leddy were a great second pairing for the Islanders’ defense last season and with Leddy gone, the expectation is that recently acquired Chara will play on the left side along with Mayfield, who is one of the better skating defensemen on the team. Chara’s accolades are unquestioned and the same is true about his instincts and discipline defensively. The question will be if the 44-year-old defenseman can continue to accumulate enough ice time to play in a second pairing and similarly, can he impact the offensive end of the ice and avoid becoming a liability from the point.
Last season, Chara averaged 18:19 time on the ice, the lowest in his career and likewise, only scored two goals and eight assists for the Washington Capitals. For the Islanders, this might indicate that he will play limited minutes and also a limited role but the defense should still expect strong play in the defensive zone from the veteran who can effectively play alongside the younger Mayfield for a majority of shifts.
Noah Dobson – Andy Greene
Last season, the Islanders were pleasantly surprised to see the emerging presence of the 21-year-old Noah Dobson, who alongside veteran Andy Greene formed a strong defensive pairing to secure the backend of the defensive unit. At 38-years-old, Greene is still playing at a high level, especially defensively but might continue to see limited ice time. Dobson on the other hand will continue to play alongside the 38-year-old veteran but is expected to take on a larger role this season after proving he can create turnovers on the ice with his speed skating and instantly start up the offense, leading to three goals and 11 assists in the regular season and seven assists in the playoffs. With Mayfield having an established role on the right side of the defense, it will be interesting to see how head coach Barry Trotz finds his 21-year-old defenseman more ice time this season, taking advantage of his play-making ability in all three zones.
Who Will Play The Point On The Power Play?
One of the bonuses of Leddy’s two-way play and production on the offensive end of the ice was his ability to play the point on the power play. Last season, he had a goal and 10 of his team-leading 29 assists on the man advantage, oftentimes as the sole defenseman on the ice.
For the Islanders, the power play allows the coaching staff to not only insert Mayfield or Pulock at the point, allowing the two defensemen to step up with the extra scoring opportunities but Dobson can accumulate more ice time as well and potentially become a major contributor as the season progresses. Dobson at the point can put the Islanders’ power play over the top as he has the speed and passing to create open shots and space for forwards on the ice. In the process, the 21-year-old defenseman will give veteran defensemen like Chara and Greene less ice time to avoid wearing either of them down.
Defensemen That Can See The Ice This Season
22-year-old Robin Salo has been in the Islanders’ system for years and might be ready to impact the defensive unit this season. Salo specifically, can help take some pressure and ice time for the aging left-side defensemen on the team like Chara or Greene and potentially become a starter by midseason if he’s ahead of schedule. The Islanders also gave Erik Gustafsson a PTO contract and the 29-year-old defenseman still can impact the backend of a defensive unit as he did with the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens last season. In case the team is still searching for defensive depth, whether it be from injuries or fatigue from the long season, 25-year-old defenseman Sebastian Aho can play on the third defensive pairing as he did for three games last season when Dobson was on the Covid list and added a goal and assist in the short time with the team as well.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.