The New York Islanders have a top-five defense this season, allowing only 2.66 goals per game. However, the defense has not only been great but has played at another level in recent games, elevating them into a playoff spot. Since their 6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Feb. 18, the Islanders have allowed only 2.29 goals per game, making them arguably the best defensive team in the NHL.
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Great defense isn’t a new thing for the Islanders as it’s been a staple of their success in recent years. Under former head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders allowed 2.82 goals per game or fewer in each of his four seasons behind the bench, using his system to win low-scoring games. However, under first-year head coach Lane Lambert, the expectation was for a defensive regression in exchange for an upgrade to the offense. At the start of the season, that looked like it was going to be the case as they played at a faster pace and the offense was thriving.
Instead, the defense has once again carried the Islanders as not only a great unit but one that can carry the team in a Stanley Cup Playoff run. The group has changed in recent seasons and this year’s roster in particular has helped it go from good to great.
Alexander Romanov’s Maturity
The Islanders’ biggest move in the offseason was the acquisition of Alexander Romanov. They acquired him during the 2022 NHL Entry Draft in exchange for the 13th overall pick and the move gave them a proven NHL-level defenseman, signaling they were looking to win now. He joined the team as a young and promising defenseman who had room to improve but would provide an immediate impact.
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Early on in the season, Romanov struggled. His playstyle was akin to a heat-seeking missile where he’d skate full speed at a player with the puck without considering the repercussions. Oftentimes, he would make a big play, specifically, a big hit that would remove an opponent from the puck and force a turnover. However, Romanov would also miss plenty of assignments and allow skaters to find open shots or scoring chances on the rush because of his aggressive style. Moreover, he started out the season playing alongside Noah Dobson, another young defenseman who couldn’t help him refine his game in the defensive zone. Fortunately, the Islanders changed their defensive pairings, playing him alongside Ryan Pulock, arguably the best on the team defensively.
Along with the roster adjustment came Romanov’s maturity, making him a reliable defenseman. As the season has progressed, he has refined his game and optimized his skillset. He’s more gap-sound and disciplined, especially in the neutral zone but can still deliver a big hit when needed. His maturity has notably made him one of the best defensemen on the Islanders this season, with 4.3 defensive point shares, 129 blocked shots, and 197 hits. The Islanders always had a great defense but lacked the hard-hitting presence in the middle of the unit and in their offseason addition, they found just that and then some.
Aho Rounds Out the Unit
There was a debate before the season about which defenseman would play the left side on the third pairing. Throughout training camp and the preseason, the belief was that Sebastian Aho was the placeholder but not the long-term solution for the position. Robin Salo, on the other hand, was the skater with a higher ceiling and at 22 years old, looked like he’d become a regular for this season and years to come.
In the first 11 games, Salo was playing on the third pairing and filling the void for the Islanders. However, once Aho took over, he never looked back, becoming the undisputed starter on the left side for the rest of the season. He has played 66 games this season and has been a remarkable two-way player with 2.9 defensive point shares along with five goals and 16 assists. Moreover, he has provided the defense with a fast skating presence and the puck-handling ability to translate turnovers into instant scoring chances, making the Islanders more suited for the modern game.
Aho has been out of the lineup in recent games because of an upper-body injury. However, this season, he proved that he belongs in the everyday lineup and will be an integral part of the defense moving forward. After the Islanders traded Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche, they lacked a two-way presence and a great skating defenseman in the middle of the unit. While Aho struggled in his first few seasons in the NHL, he has finally matured into an everyday player and has stepped up to make the Islanders’ defense one of the best in the league.
Pelech Returns & The Defense is at Full Strength
Adam Pelech was injured in the 7-4 loss to St. Louis Blues on Dec. 6 and the blow was tough for the Islanders to overcome. He missed six weeks with the injury and in his absence, the Islanders allowed 3.06 goals per game, often looking lost without one of their best blueliners. The team also fell apart in that stretch, going 7-9-5 to drop out of a playoff position and slide to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Pelech is not only back in the lineup but is playing at a high level. In the 5-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on March 27, he led all skaters with 25:02 of ice time and was far and beyond the best defenseman on the ice. He was creating turnovers against a potent offense and his passes from the blue line helped start up the offense, resulting in the decisive victory. His return has both provided stability to the defense but also discipline to the roster altogether, making the Islanders look like one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference since the All-Star Break.
Last season, the Islanders had to deal with a similar setback as Pulock missed multiple games because of an injury. His absence saw the season spiral out of control and the team missed the playoffs as a result. This year, both Pelech and Pulock are back in the lineup, and the defense has returned to form especially in the home stretch. The Islanders’ star players are in the forward unit but their success hinges on their two best defensemen who have once again helped put the team into a playoff position.
Other Notes on the Improved Defense
Goaltending has also played a big part in the defensive success. Sorokin is having a Vezina Trophy-caliber season and can often eliminate some of the best offenses in the league. Likewise, backup goaltender Semyon Varlamov has also put together a strong season, giving the Islanders stability in the net on a nightly basis.
The Islanders have also added defensive forwards to the lineup over the course of the season. Bo Horvat is known as a goalscorer but has provided an impact on the defensive end of the ice as well. Along with controlling the center of the ice, he has been one of the best skaters at controlling the puck, winning 59 percent of his faceoffs and effectively handling the puck in all three zones. Likewise, Hudson Fasching has been a pleasant surprise this season and his biggest impact has been as a defensive forward, creating turnovers with a strong forecheck and strong hits along the boards.
When the general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello fired Trotz in the 2022 offseason, the expectation was that the team would transition into an offensive-minded one that would win high-scoring games. However, the bread and butter for the Islanders is their defense. It’s what has helped them return to the playoffs and could carry them in a deep playoff run.