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The Trickle Down Effect: Why Islanders’ Defensive Woes Aren’t Depth-Related

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 11: Adam Pelech #50 of the New York Islanders battles for the puck against Patrick Eaves #18 of the Anaheim Ducks during the game on October 11, 2017 at Honda Center in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
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January was a great month for the Dow and S&P 500.

For the Islanders, however, it was a continuation of their downward spiral, even with the team’s announced return (sort of) to Nassau Coliseum while the new digs in Belmont are constructed. They won five games and lost eight, seven of which were in regulation. They gave up 14 more goals than they scored, topping it all off with a shutout loss in Toronto last night.

One can’t help but wonder how the Isles are failing to capitalize at such an opportune and critical juncture, given John Tavares’ contract situation. The offense is as strong as its ever been and the organizational depth is solid. Looking at the roster, you get the sense it wouldn’t take much else to help turn the corner, but the results have suggested otherwise. And there are a lot of factors people can point their fingers at and blame for the team’s struggles, including the defense. It hasn’t been up to par, and without a showstopping No. 1 goaltender, that issue becomes magnified.

What isn’t so clear cut is why the defense has been so porous.

The simple explanation would be that the Isles just don’t have good players on their blueline. Perhaps they just suck, as one might say. Me? I think there’s more to it. I don’t think these problems stem from a lack of depth and, in many ways, I think they’re closer to building a strong defense than they were last year. The Islanders are flush with young, talented rearguards, and that’s never a bad thing.

Ryan Pulock, age 23, has one more block, just as many takeaways, more shots per game, and far less giveaways than more heralded rookie blueliner Mikhail Sergachev. His 15 points in 38 games this season (six of which have come on the power play) would give him roughly 32 points in a full 82-game season, which is very respectable for a first-timer at his position.

On a team that has a goal differential of -18, a metric only eight other NHL clubs have scored lower on, Adam Pelech is a +10. That’s commendable, especially for a 23-year old playing in his first full NHL season. He’s also chipped in with 13 points.

And then there’s 25-year-old Scott Mayfield, also in the midst of his first full season in the big leagues, has recorded 12 points, averaged 1.6 hits and blocks-per-game, and a plus/minus that’s hovered above and below zero, all while averaging 18:23 of ice time. He’s nothing spectacular, and that’s perfectly okay. He’s been fairly steady, which is exactly what you want from a depth defenseman at any stage in his career. Perhaps with time Mayfield will take on a bigger role but, if he doesn’t, he’s proven capable of handling his current duties.

To have three defensemen aged 25 and under filling those types of roles is fantastic. And coupled with Nick Leddy — who is having a down year without the puck but is generally capable of better than his performance this season — and Johnny Boychuk, you’d be led to believe this is a pretty deep bench.

So, why don’t the on-ice results reflect that?

Because Leddy and Boychuk aren’t anchor tenants, that’s why. Each of them may be very, very good at what they do — for Leddy, it’s point production and, in Boychuk’s case, point prevention — but neither of them is a true No. 1 commander that can hold the line, then advance on the battlefield.

There are no PK Subbans on this roster. No Duncan Keiths. No Ryan Suters, Drew Doughtys or Alex Pietrangelos. Pulock may very well evolve into a Shea Weber-type player, and could emerge as that missing piece, but for now he’s young and the Isles don’t have it. A lack of depth would’ve been easier to address. Finding a cornerstone is another matter entirely.

And, perhaps bigger than the individual impact a franchise defenseman makes is the fact that his presence allows everyone else on the blueline to slide into more appropriate roles, something that is especially important when you consider the fact that many of these players are still developing at the NHL level. Leddy and Boychuk as No. 1A and 1Bs? Not so ideal. Leddy and Boychuk as your No. 2 and 3 defensemen? That’s enviable. And then suddenly you’re talking about Pulock, Pelech, and Mayfield or Sebastian Aho as your fourth, fifth, and sixth rearguards.

Now that’s a blueline.

In the meantime, the Isles will have to make due with their current hand, or add to it from outside the organization. But as long as the status quo persists, they won’t be making any deep playoff runs, if they even manage to get in at this point.

You can’t win a game of chess with 14 pawns and two bishops.

 

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DanJFriedman

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