Nick Leddy being dealt to the Detroit Red Wings in July left a hole on the New York Islanders’ blue line that has been surrounded by nothing but question marks. However, it looks like the answer might be on the way… if he impresses at training camp.
On Thursday morning, Chris Johnston of the Toronto Star and Sportsnet broke the news that the Islanders were inviting defenseman Erik Gustafsson to training camp on a professional tryout contract (PTO). The move came exactly one week before the on-ice portion of Islanders camp was set to begin, with day one being Sept. 23.
I put together a piece for IslesBlog nearly a month ago at this point, about how Noah Dobson could be the answer to fill Leddy’s role in the top-four. While playing Dobson in an increased role seemed to be “obvious” for some, bringing in a guy like Gustafsson isn’t a bad option at all. The only question is… would he be the right fit to fill Leddy’s shoes?
Starting out with the meat and potatoes here, Gustafsson and Leddy play very similar styles. Both are smooth-skating defensemen that love to control the pace of the game. Both players can also quarterback a power play (which is arguably where Gustafsson shines the most). While Leddy (11 seasons) still has a good six seasons more than Gustafsson does in the NHL, both have a knack for tallying points as well. Again, Leddy might be more established and consistent in his scoring totals, but Gustafsson is only three years removed from a 17-goal, 60-point regular season that spanned 79 games with the Chicago Blackhawks. In 2018-19 Gustafsson finished sixth in the league amongst defensemen in points, finishing only behind Brent Burns, Mark Giordano, Morgan Reilly, John Carlson, and Keith Yandle. Just for reference, had Gustafsson donned the blue and orange that season, he would’ve finished second on the team in scoring behind only Mathew Barzal, who had 18 goals and 62 points. Gustafsson is the type of player the Isles have been seeking to replace Leddy: a left-handed shot. He’d slot right in next to Scott Mayfield on the second pair (hopefully), and keep the right/left shot combo alive for all three defensive pairs.
Erik Gustafsson makes it 2-0 Hawks!#Blackhawks
— Blackhawk Up (@Blackhawk_Up) January 20, 2020
Let’s address two more things in here that I’m sure a lot of fans are thinking, in that a) to this point, he hasn’t come close to replicating his magical 2018-19 campaign, and b) he isn’t amazing defensively. Starting out with “Point A”, Gustafsson also hasn’t found a true home in the NHL since that ‘18-19 season. He was actually traded from the Blackhawks to the Calgary Flames at the 2020 Trade Deadline, and he went on to play in only seven games as a Flame before the season was postponed due to the pandemic. He would put up four points (all assists) for Calgary in the 2020 postseason bubble, but that would be it for his time in Calgary. From there, he was picked up in free agency by one of the Isles’ divisional rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, where again he didn’t stick around for long. In 24 regular-season games, he accrued 10 points as a Flyer, and he was later flipped at the deadline again to the Montreal Canadiens, where he only put up two assists in five regular-season games and three points in 16 playoff games, as the Habs went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
Point B might be true, he isn’t amazing in his own zone. He can be known to turn the puck over, and sometimes not clear the zone when it’s needed (which are some of the things that Isles fans have seen a bit out of Leddy as well). At the end of the day, if there’s any coach that can mold a player like Gustafsson into a solid two-way defender, it’s Barry Trotz. Let’s also not forget that Leddy wasn’t necessarily fantastic defensively before Trotz came to the Island, either. Nobody on that 2017-18 team really was, for that matter, but Leddy happened to finish that season with a league-worst minus-42. Take the plus-minus stat how you want, but it was pretty clear to see that Leddy began playing a lot more responsibly in his own end after Trotz came to town.
Ultimately, there’s no real risk here until the decision is made to put pen to paper. Sometimes all players need is a chance to prove themselves, and Gustafsson could be one of those guys lurking in the weeds. It might seem like a risk on paper, but you never know… sometimes it’s the smaller moves that wind up paying off big-time in the long run.
Follow Carter on Twitter @cbentivenga14