Islanders’ Defense Needs a Leader

The New York Islanders have a date with the Florida Panthers in the play-in round of the Stanley Cup playoffs when the NHL resumes from the COVID-19 pause. While the Panthers are not the best offensive team in the play-in round, their top line alone can carry them for a bare minimum of three games. With the likes of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau on the other side, the Islanders need one or more defensemen to step up and be a leader.

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Since their arrivals in 2014, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy have been far and away the best two defensemen on the Islanders. With Boychuk aging and Leddy taking a step back over the last couple of seasons, for the first time in a while there’s actually a debate for who the best defenseman is. There are plenty of options to step up and be the leader of the blue line.

Ryan Pulock

Every team has that one defenseman that can contribute no matter where he is on the ice. For the Washington Capitals, it is John Carlson, for the Pittsburgh Penguins it is Kris Letang and for the Boston Bruins, it is Charlie McAvoy. Ryan Pulock is a candidate to be the top defenseman for the Isles. He does not need 60 points to become “the guy,” however, he needs to be a force on the ice every shift.

Ryan Pulock New York Islanders
Ryan Pulock, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Some forget that the blueliner is only 25 years old but in his three full NHL seasons, Pulock has topped his point total each time and was on pace to do so this season too before the COVID-19 pause. In addition, his best two seasons in the plus/minus category came in the last two years when he averaged over 22 minutes per game. That comes as no surprise considering that’s also when Barry Trotz took over the head coach position, but it still counts for something. It shows that Pulock can handle heavy five-on-five minutes including special teams time.

In addition, the Manitoba native possesses a 105-mile-per-hour shot. That slap shot immediately makes him a threat any time he’s in the offensive zone. Pulock had 10 goals this season before the pause and it’s no secret how many times he misses the net with those heavy shots. If he could put his shot on net just a little more, he has the potential to consistently hit 15 to 20 goals.

Pulock would be an ideal candidate to really take control of that No. 1 spot. Based on time-on-ice over the last two seasons, it’s clear Trotz trusts him to handle the brunt of the load.

Adam Pelech

Raise your hand if you remember questioning Garth Snow for giving Adam Pelech a four-year contract and then protecting him in the expansion draft. Well, maybe Snow was on to something. Pelech has never been the flashiest defenseman on the ice and at times he wasn’t the best. However, in recent years, Pelech has become a mainstay on the Islanders’ blueline. He has become so important that the Islanders record this season is severely different without him. With Pelech in the lineup, the Isles are 25-10-3 and without him, they are 10-13-7.

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Clearly Pelech has become an integral part of the Islanders’ defensive system. Perhaps what makes him such an essential player is that he and Pulock were defense partners and Trotz put them out against other team’s top lines. With Pelech up against the best the league has to offer, and for the most part, shutting those top lines down, it makes the goaltenders’ job a lot easier. Goalies Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss are solid, but with Pelech helping to shut the best forwards down, it’s a completely different ballgame.

Zach Parise Adam Pelech Thomas Greiss
Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise battles New York Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech behind the net as Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss looks on. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

The Ontario native had 83 blocked shots in just 38 games this season before being injured. That puts him on pace for 179 blocked shots in a full season or at 148 in 68 games (the total number of games the Islanders played before the pause). At 148, Pelech would be at seventh in the league in blocked shots tied with Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames. He’s in good company and Pelech plays like one of the best defense-first defensemen in the NHL. Getting him back for the play-in round is a huge win for the Islanders and he has all the makings of being the defensive leader for the Isles in the foreseeable future.

Devon Toews

Devon Toews is an intriguing player. The defenseman has found success at every level of hockey he’s played in. According to Elite Prospects, going back to his amateur hockey days he had 37 points with the Fraser Valley Bruins as a 16 and 17-year old in the 2010-11 season. That was a 30-point increase from the previous season.

At Quinnipiac University, he was second-team All-Conference in 2016 and a conference champion when Quinnipiac won the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) title. Then, in his rookie season in the American Hockey League with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Toews won the Fastest Skater competition in 13.478 seconds at the AHL All-Star Weekend. Toews, surprisingly, had a higher point per game average in the AHL than he did in college.

New York Islanders Devon Toews
New York Islanders defenseman Devon Toews (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The 25-year old defenseman hasn’t lost a step and is noticeable as one of the best skaters on the Islanders team, not just on the blueline. He has a quick first step and can blow by players of the opposing team in the neutral zone and carry the puck into the offensive zone. He has taken the reins as a power-play quarterback in just his second season. Before the pause, Toews had 28 points in 68 games, putting him on a 33-point pace.

Toews would be an offensive leader. Someone who can skate well, put points up and be a serious puck-moving threat from the blueline. The Islanders have not had that for quite some time.

Looking Forward

Something that’s very important to remember about the Islanders’ defense is that it is a very young core. Sure, there are veterans like Leddy, Boychuk and the trade-deadline acquisition Andy Greene, but everyone on this list is 26 years old or younger. In addition, Scott Mayfield is just 27 years old and rookie Noah Dobson is 20 (the youngest of the bunch).

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Any one of the three listed in this article stepping into that No. 1 defenseman role on the Islanders would be a tremendous help for the Islanders going forward. Someone to be “the guy” for the Isles to rely on. Pulock has a steady two-way game with a cannon in his arsenal while Pelech is clearly defense-first and Toews has an offensive touch.

You can almost guarantee that under Trotz, all of them will be given a chance and all of them will be held accountable if something isn’t done correctly. For the coming series with the Panthers and the rest of the playoffs if the Islanders advance, the Islanders need someone to step up and lead the way. The future of the defense is in good hands, no matter who the leader is.