Defense has always been an important component of winning in today’s NHL. Defense wins championships. And while the New York Islanders haven’t reached that summit yet, they’ve taken the strides needed to get there.
Over the last year and a half, the Isles have evolved into one of the most defensively-sound teams in the NHL — maybe even the best — thanks in large part to the structure put in place by head coach Barry Trotz. Two players who have played a key role in that continuing transformation are Devon Toews and Ryan Pulock.
Pulock, who is in his third season as a pro after the organization drafted him 15th overall back in 2013, is the defacto number-one d-man on the blue line; Toews, in his second season, has emerged as a legit top-four d-man with top-two potential to boot.
This year has been an ongoing progression for both defenders. That said, there is another level that both players are capable of reaching.
Before this season began, I wrote about both players and a realistic expectation I had for them. For Pulock, it was to make the All-Star Game. For Toews, it was for him to make his way toward that echelon of the elite d-men in this league. Obviously, Pulock isn’t going to the All-Star Game; Mathew Barzal will be representing the Islanders once again. Toews though, there’s still a possibility of that expectation to become reality.
Ever since Toews arrived in mid-to-late December of last season, he’s been as advertised. His play from January on into the postseason was a swift reminder of why former g.m. Garth Snow was so hellbent on how good he was. This season, Toews has been hot and cold. It comes with the territory being that he’s only in his sophomore campaign as a full-time regular. But watching him all year long, there’s always that one play he makes or that one shift he has that allows you to question: Why he can’t be an elite defender.
Offensively, Toews has totaled 15 points in 45 games this year. Not bad, but still could be much better. He’s taken 82 shots on goal — the second-most of any Islanders defenseman, Pulock being first — and recorded 12 assists, which slots him third-best for a d-man. The problem remains, as dependable as Toews is in his own end, his underrated offensive skill needs to shine more.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) December 13, 2019
Pulock is in the same boat in regards to him being stronger offensively.
I think Puls is an amazing player with his ability to think out there, his offensive instincts,” his new defensive partner Nick Leddy told Newsday. “His shot is obviously one of the hardest in the league. So that in itself is a great weapon. I think we complement each other well.”
That hard shot though has only accounted for six goals on 105 shots this year for Pulock. Which is underwhelming because of how deadly of a cannon he has. There have been way too many opportunities over the course of this season where Pulock has passed up or been too indecisive letting it rip. According to hockey-reference.com, at even strength, Pulock’s taken 86 shots and had 57 of them blocked. Man up, he’s taken 18 shots and had eight blocked. Those numbers show Pulock’s not quick to pull the trigger.
Basically, Pulock needs to more emphatic with his thinking. By doing that, he’ll increase his offensive output as well as the teams.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) December 21, 2019
From a defensive perspective, we’ve all become aware of how astute a defender the 25-year-old has developed into ever since he got a full-time role back when Doug Weight was behind the bench in 2017-18. He’s come a long way since when he was a defensive novice when he was in Bridgeport for four years; Pulock is averaging 22:06 of ice time, a shade below the 22:22 he averaged a year ago. The job he did against the Pittsburgh Penguins top guns — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel — last spring with partner Adam Pelech was exceptional, and it was a major factor in the team’s first-round sweep. That play has carried over to this year even with a few hiccups along the way, so it’s not much of a concern.
The Islanders will have 36 games remaining after they play the Rangers tonight. A lot can happen in that time, and Toews and Pulock’s performance could play a deciding factor. They both found a new gear in the second half last year and have the ability to do it again.
If the Islanders are going to do some damage in the playoffs, Devon Toews and Ryan Pulock dialing it up to another notch are needed. Stalwarts since the year started, both have more in them and now is the time for them to show it.
Follow me on Twitter at @RTaub_