With the 2019-20 NHL regular season postponed (and likely canceled altogether) and the Stanley Cup Playoffs in question, discussions have shifted to this summer’s restricted (RFA) and unrestricted free agents (UFA). While the New York Islanders have a players in both camps, like RFA Mathew Barzal, one of its core defensemen who’s having a career offensive season also needs a new contract for 2020-21 – Ryan Pulock.
Offense on Display
Since his junior career with the Brandon Wheat Kings, Pulock has been known for his bomb of a slap shot, and he has made his mark with the Islanders since joining the club full-time in 2017-18. He’s hit the 30-point plateau in each of his first three seasons, leading rookie defensemen in scoring during the 2017-18 campaign, and was on pace to set a new career-best before this season’s postponement. With Nick Leddy’s considerable drop-off in the last two seasons, after three straight with 40+ points, the Islanders have come to depend on Pulock to provide scoring from the back-end, and he’s delivered.
Pulock has evolved into one of, if not the best Islanders defenseman over the last two seasons. Part of a group of homegrown talent on the back end, his point production has helped buoy a starving offensive group forever searching for a top winger to play with
John Tavares Barzal. Though his shots and attempts are down this season, he’s continued to produce, even if we wish he’d hit the net more. However, his talent in the offensive zone isn’t the only thing that has made him the go-to for head coach Barry Trotz.
A Steady Defender
Night in and night out, Pulock averages the most ice time on the team. Beginning last season and continuing into the 2019-20 season, Trotz has increasingly trusted him as he’s developed into a more rounded player with the new structure to the team’s game.
“My defensive game has improved in a lot of areas,” Pulock said in an interview with Newsday last year. “A lot of it is confidence and the coaching staff putting structure down that’s helped me stabilize that part of my game,” (From Islanders’ Barry Trotz and Ryan Pulock enjoy Manitoba homecoming, Newsday, 3/28/2019).
Pulock, with his top-pair partner Adam Pelech, was vital to the Islanders’ first-round series sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. (from ‘The two Islanders responsible for shutting down Sidney Crosby,’ New York Post, 04/16/2019) The most impressive part of their performance was shutting down Sidney Crosby, who was held to just one point in the series. Digging a little deeper, the only Penguins forward who had more than one point at even strength was Evgeni Malkin.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, expectations were high for Pulock, and he’s largely delivered. His skating and decision-making in the defensive zone have improved immensely in just three NHL seasons. Listed at 6-foot-2, 217 lbs, he’s not huge, but he uses the size to his advantage. He’s big enough to clear the front of the net and shield the puck to regain possession, but mobile enough to help the Islanders exit the zone.
The team’s focus on defense and Trotz’s attention to detail have also helped the young defenseman reach his potential and ultimately become an essential piece to the team moving forward.
Salary Cap Issues
The effect of the pause and maybe cancellation of the 2019-20 season on the salary cap remains to be seen. Shortly before the hiatus, deputy commissioner Bill Daily announced that the cap limit in 2020-21 could be between $84 million and $88.2 million. What’s tricky, is that the NHL uses league revenue to set the salary cap for the following season. Given the loss of revenue as a result of the current health crisis, the cap may not go up enough to make a difference for a team like the Islanders.
General manager Lou Lamoriello stated in a recent Twitter Q&A that he has every intention of signing Pulock and fellow RFAs Barzal and Devon Toews. However, having said that just days before the NHL paused its season, will the revenue stagnation affect negotiations between the arbitration-eligible Pulock and Lou?
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Jon Zella is a 31-year-old, Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.