The New York Islanders have had no problem scoring goals this season. Led by John Tavares who currently sits third in a tie for second in the National Hockey League with 27 points, the Isles are fourth in the Eastern Conference in goals for at the quarter point of the season. Though this is encouraging, they currently sit in the cellar of the Metropolitan Division with a record of 8-13-3.
The Islanders problems lie on their blue line and to a lesser extent, in the blue ice. Nabokov has struggled to begin the season, and though youngster Kevin Poulin has struggled in spot duty, playing between the pipes on Long Island this season is a lot like being on a one man life raft.
The only teams to allow more goals than the Islanders this season, are the two struggling Alberta franchises. Goaltending has not been the biggest reason the Isles continue to fish pucks out of their own net, instead it is their weak defense group that is the major culprit.
Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic are solid defenders, but have been forced to do far too much heavy lifting on their own. MacDonald is among the league’s ice time leaders, and Hamonic is not far behind. MacDonald and Hamonic make a solid defense pairing, but their flaws are highlighted when both play more minutes than recent Norris Trophy winners P.K. Subban, Zdeno Chara and Duncan Keith.
Early season injuries to veteran Lubomir Visnovsky and steady Brian Strait, has magnified the problems on the Isles back end. Behind Andrew and Travis, Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano is left to dish out ice time to 23 year old rookies Matt Donovan and Aaron Ness or declining veterans Matt Carkner and Radek Martinek.
All-D Draft of 2012 A Great Move By Snow
The need for help on the blue line has not gone unnoticed by General Manager Garth Snow, but he has decided to use the same method that is beginning to bear fruit among the forwards: patience and persistence. Snow made this abundantly clear at the 2012 draft when he used all seven of the team’s selections on defensemen. It was an unprecedented move by Snow, and one that was met with much mocking from the hockey world, but given the current makeup of the Isles, the bold strategy was a necessary one.
At the time, the Islanders top defensive prospect was former first round pick Calvin De Haan who had just finished off a solid rookie season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, that saw him battle a few minor injuries. It would be a precursor for the 2012-13 season, when de Haan would miss all but three games for Bridgeport, registering a pair of assists before losing the majority of the season with shoulder surgery. De Haan is now healed and showing signs of being the defender that the Islanders drafted 12th overall in 2009. He lost a formative development year due to his shoulder injury, but at just 22 years of age, De Haan has lots of time to develop into a solid NHL defender.
Young Bridgeport Defense Gaining Experience
Joining De Haan in Bridgeport this season are first year pro defenders Andrey Pedan and Scott Mayfield. Pedan is a big defenseman who developed an impressive offensive side to his game while playing in the Ontario Hockey League with the Guelph Storm. At 6’4 and over 210 pounds, he is certainly not afraid to get involved physically in the game, and has chipped in five points in his first nine games with the Sound Tigers this season. The 20 year old has come a long way since being selected in the third round of the 2011 NHL draft, scoring a combined 84 points in his final two Junior seasons with Guelph.
Mayfield is another big defenseman in the Isles pipeline, standing at 6’4” and weighing just over 200 pounds. He turned pro this year after his sophomore season at the University of Denver. Scott is a tough defender for his opponents to play against, and though he does not have the offensive upside of Pedan, the 21 year old American could very well be a dependable shutdown blueliner in New York before long.
Also selected in 2012, with the 34th selection was offensive minded Ville Pokka from Finland. Ville has been playing against men much older than himself since his draft season. Now 19, Pokka is developing into a reliable contributor on the scoresheet for Karpat, and has 12 points in 24 games in the top league in Finland this season. Ville has already been dominant at the World Jr. Tournament, scoring 10 points in 13 games over the past two tournaments, but he is poised to show he is one of the best defenseman in the world his age, when the top teenage hockey players gather in Malmo, Sweden in December.
Islanders Have Best Defenders in CHL
Currently playing in the OHL, the Islanders are surely pleased with the play of Adam Pelech who is the top defender on a resurgent Erie Otters squad. Another player with good size, Pelech suffered through a painful rebuild with the Otters the past three season, but now helps run the power play alongside exceptional prospect Connor McDavid. Pelech piled up 40 points last season with a struggling team in Erie, and is off to similarly strong start this season, with 15 points in the team’s 24 games. Pelech missed the Canadian team’s World Jr. Evaluation Camp over the summer due to injury, but the invitation suggests he is one of the top defenders in the Canadian Hockey League, and is an exciting prospect for the Islanders brass to keep an eye on. The 19 year old was selected in the third round of the all-defenseman draft of 2012.
The crown jewels of the New York Islanders pipeline currently reside in Western Canada. Griffin Reinhart was picked 4th overall in 2012, and the 19 year old is currently in his fourth full season with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League. Just like plenty of Islanders blue line prospects, Reinhart is 6’4” and over 200 pounds, and he serves as team captain of the Oil Kings. Reinhart is a solid all around defender, represented Canada at the World Jr. Tournament a year ago, and will surely be back with the team this winter. Griffin has some polishing to do but will bring plenty of experience to the pro level next season, and could find himself wearing an Isles jersey as soon as 2014. He has been to the Memorial Cup tournament with the Oil Kings in 2012, and fell just a pair of wins short of returning last season, as Edmonton fell in the WHL Final to the Portland Winterhawks in six games.
Also honing his skills in the WHL, is the captain of the Brandon Wheat Kings, Ryan Pulock. Selected by the Islanders with the 15th selection in the very deep 2013 NHL draft, Pulock is best known for his booming slap shot that has been fooling WHL goaltenders for four years. Ryan has scored 169 career points in his 216 game WHL career, including his 22 points in 21 games this season. At 6’1” and 210 pounds, Pulock is not the biggest prospect in the Isles system, but he is not afraid to toss his weight around to intimidate opponents. The 19 year old will be running the power play in Bridgeport at this time next year, and is a strong candidate to join Griffin Reinhart on Team Canada’s blue line at the World Jr. Tournament in December.
Islanders fans are sick and tired of the word patience, and were hoping not to hear it again after reaching the NHL playoffs last season. However, the patience is beginning to pay off up front with Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome soon to form a formidable attack with Tavares, Thomas Vanek, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen.
It may take a few more years for the Islanders defenders to catch up with the explosive offense, but when they do, the word patience will not be used in the same sentence as Islanders for a very long time.
Kenneth is a recent graduate from Saint Mary’s University, and is currently studying at Mount Saint Vincent University to be a High School Teacher. Kenneth is a huge hockey fan who enjoys the game as a player, fan, writer, coach and referee. Follow me on twitter @MacMillanKen88