Islanders’ Desperate Decades-long Search

As the New York Islanders continue to see their 2017-18 season dimly fade into the night, it is undoubtedly the defense that has been the club’s Achilles’ heel. It is not solely the job of defensemen to play responsible defense but the forwards as well, so the burden of one of the Isles’ statistically-worst defensive seasons of the last decade does not lie just with the guys on the back end. Having said that, it is still undeniable that the Islanders would be prolifically better if they had a genuine top-pair guy added to the current crop, which they have gone treacherously long without.

The Dynasty Days on Long Island

The last time the team had a bonafide elite defenseman skating in the blue and orange was when a man named Denis Potvin was still suiting up for the team. The year was 1988 and Potvin hung up his skates that spring after a successful run as the franchise cornerstone and team captain. With his leadership and production, he helped take the Long Island hockey team to five consecutive Stanley Cup Finals from 1980-84, winning four straight in the process.

Denis Potvin
They still chant his name in New York hockey arenas.

Ever wonder why you can still hear chants of “Potvin Sucks (Cups)” at Madison Square Garden all these years later? It could be that the Islanders have not had a defenseman good enough to hate since then, especially that much. If slightly joking (I do know the “Potvin Sucks” backstory), the chant does still happen today, not because of a hit no one remembers on a player most New York Rangers fans don’t know but jealousy of the Isles’ success during these years.

The Lost Years of Milbury

The worst part about this long anchor-less drought is the fact that the Islanders did possess one of the most prized assets in professional hockey at one point during this 30-year hiatus, they just didn’t know it. Before the 2001-02 NHL season, with the help of Mike “Genius” Milbury, the Isles traded the second-overall pick (Jason Spezza) in the 2001 NHL Draft and some dude named Zdeno Chara for Alexei Yashin in one of the most short-sighted (at the time Yashin had missed the entire previous season due to a contract holdout) and lopsided trades in NHL history.

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
Zdeno Chara (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

The best thing Yashin did during his short-lived Islanders tenure was to provide fans with the gift of watching hockey in the presence of Carol Alt and her giant diamond engagement ring. At least something big and shiny was back in Nassau. (Although this ring might have blinded referees during the 2002 playoff series vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs).

Mike Milbury, NBC, New York Islanders
Mike Milbury

Chara has been a top-10 NHL defenseman for the better part of 15 years. As his career ticks down, he has been one of the best defensemen in NHL history. At 6-foot-9, he is a hockey unicorn and possesses great skating ability for someone reaching over seven feet on skates. He has used his large frame and size to crush and shield off opponents with ease and his cannon of a shot helped end Boston’s 39-year Cup drought in 2011, besting the Vancouver Canucks in seven games.

On Long Island, Chara was underappreciated, underutilized, and underpaid and the relationship between team and player started to sour with contract disagreements. The next season, he went from a minus-27 on the Islanders to a plus-30 on the Ottawa Senators, immediately showing his impact. Fans can only dream of having retained Chara a bit longer to have glimpsed his production while wearing the Isles crest during any campaign after 2000-01.

The Islanders’ Recent Past

During the past 20 years, the Islanders have retained the services of some high-quality defenseman but no one has entered the Norris Trophy discussion for best NHL defenseman since Potvin was around. Some names of note are Kenny Jonsson, Roman Hamrlik, Adrian Aucoin, Alexei Zhitnik, Mark Streit and currently Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. What these players have in common is that they are quality defensemen but not elite. Save for the 2014-15 version of Boychuk, there has not been a true No. 1 D-man holding down the fort for the team in quite a long time.

Leddy and Boychuk Islanders
Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy were some of Garth Snow’s biggest hauls during the 2014 offseason. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

While Leddy has been the team’s best defenseman for the past three seasons, he is hardly a No. 1; evident by his leading the pack for the maligned “Green Jacket” award (the sarcastic notoriety for having the league’s worst plus/minus). Leddy is a league-worst minus-42, a full 69 goal swing from the league-best, defenseman Victor Hedman with plus-27. The bottom line is that Leddy would be a more valuable player to the Islanders as the top guy on the second pair.

Especially with the emergence of Ryan Pulock, the Islanders should feel confident about their defense going into next season, if they are able to relieve Leddy of some of those hard, top-line minutes and acquire a player of note. Leddy is being run into the ground this year without Calvin de Haan around to help skate the puck out of the zone.

Nick Leddy during warmups for a Chicago Blackhawks game
Nick Leddy on the Chicago Blackhawks (picture by Cheryl Adams/HockeyBroad)

Look no further than the makeup of the 2013 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. While an early-20s Leddy was a part of the team’s defensive corps, he was arguably the fourth or fifth best defenseman on a unit led by Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya. Unless you are the Pittsburgh Penguins and can roll three different forward lines with a Sidney Crosby, an Evgeni Malkin, and a Phil Kessel, you can’t get away with not having a top defenseman like the Penguins managed in 2017 without their elite D-man Kris Letang.

Unless the Islanders plan on acquiring Auston Matthews or Nathan MacKinnon to play alongside Mathew Barzal and (hopefully) John Tavares next season, they won’t become the Penguins. However, the Isles can bring home a Stanley Cup with Leddy as either their second or third-best blue-liner but certainly not if he’s the No. 1. The mystery man plus Leddy and Pulock would be a good start to rounding out the D-core, but the problem is where to look?

Where Do the Islanders Go from Here?

Top defensemen don’t grow on trees but with the bevy of assets the Islanders hold, they could acquire something they desperately need in order to reach their ultimate goal. Brock Nelson and more unpopularly Anders Lee (37 goals) could be trade chips, as you have to give quality to get quality. Lee has just one year remaining on his deal at $3.75 million and will surely demand something in the $5.5 to $7 million range when it expires.

Kieffer Bellows Portland Winterhawks
Kieffer Bellows son of NHL sniper Brian Bellows, Portland Winterhawks (Photo by Christopher Mast)

The Islanders have a young, American phenom in Kieffer Bellows coming up the pipe as well as young winger Anthony Beauvillier developing, and Jordan Eberle who’s fitting in quite nicely after arriving this year. Lee could become expendable for an upgrade on defense.

Management could use a mix of first-round picks, prospects and current players to acquire someone in a trade. Oliver Ekman-Larsson from the Arizona Coyotes and long-shots like Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings and Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators all fit the list of desirables. What the Islanders will be able to accomplish in free agency or trades is anyone’s guess but they will be acquiring a new blue-liner this summer. That is, if winning is this team’s priority.