A word that still seems foreign after how distraught the New York Islanders were last season.
What occurred last year — giving up a league-worst 296 goals, their worst total since the 1995-96 campaign (315), and forgetting the simple aspects of defensive hockey — the organization and fans hope were just an aberration. A lot of those numbers can fall on former bench boss Doug Weight’s shoulders because of his Run-and-Gun style, but the burden was definitely carried from a personnel perspective too. Now, with the innovator of the trap — Lou Lamoriello — at the helm, and a head coach in Barry Trotz, who’s coming off winning a Stanley Cup and built two exceptional defensive programs in Nashville and Washington, the Islanders should be a more structured and responsible team on the backend.
One major player who will be the key to whether the Islanders prosper on defense is Ryan Pulock.
Pulock, 23, is now the Islanders number-one defensemen. This past offseason he signed a two-year, $4 million contract. Pulock could have gone long-term, but went a different direction, which is not a bad thing. Essentially, Pulock is betting on himself that by the time that contract expires, he’ll be in a position to be paid handsomely and will be a franchise pillar moving forward.
Entering his second pro season, Pulock is now a full-fledged regular after biding his time developing and getting past injuries since being drafted 15th overall in 2013.
A year ago, Pulock came into the season a part of a trio — with fellow youngsters Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield — fighting for a spot on the blue line. He was beat out by his counterparts, not seeing his first game action until October 19th in a 3-2 SO win against the Rangers. After that game, which he did record an assist, Pulock began to see more playing time and slowly started to progress quickly. It was on January 20th in Chicago where Pulock had finally arrived. Pulock registered a career-high five points in a 7-3 beatdown of the Blackhawks. Following that record night, the 23-year old never looked back. Pulock immediately ascended as the team’s best defender in the second half of the season, ending the year with 10 goals and 22 assists — second best in points for a d-man and ninth most on the team.
“I felt good,” Pulock told NHL.com before the start of this season. “The start of the year was a little up and down, just trying to get a regular spot in the lineup. When I was able to kind of play every night [in the second half], my confidence grew and I was able to be myself out there.”
Heading into this season, expectations are at a fever pitch for Pulock to build on his stellar second half and emerge to elite status.
Pulock’s progression will be a driving force if the Isles want to not only prove all the doubters wrong, but also steal a playoff spot for the first time since the 2015-16 season. As the number one d-man, Pulock will now get a bulk of the work of covering the opposition’s best forwards and figuring out ways to shut them down. We’ve seen Nick Leddy since he became an Islander use his smooth skating to drive the offense, but now that role will fall on Pulock too. Pulock showed glimpses on many occasions in the final 41 games last season that he can be an offensive threat with his ability to carry the puck from end-to-end and his poise with the puck in his own zone. Where Pulock also must excel if the Islanders are going to be a competitive team is the power play.
The stalwart showed he’s more than qualified to be the man who quarterback’s the man-advantage — he was given significant power play time in the second half and his bullet of a shot that won the game in overtime for the Islanders against the Flyers last week in Lehigh Valley.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) September 22, 2018
Pulock’s shot is a weapon and it must be utilized by Trotz to its fullest extent. Whether that means setting him up in the Ovechkin-style spot — which was the case against Philadelphia — or just letting him rip slappers or one-timers from the point ala Drew Doughty or P.K. Subban, Pulock headlining the power play will only provide a bigger advantage for the team.
Where Pulock’s emergence will also pay dividends because the Islanders defense is at a crossroads.
Leddy is coming off his worst season as a pro where he was an NHL-worst -42, Johnny Boychuk’s is aging and his body continues to break down, both Pelech and Mayfield still have to develop, and Devon Toews is still 24 and yet to play in a NHL game. Pulock taking some of the heavy minutes away will take some of the pressure of Leddy who showed last year he can’t do it all by himself before he starts to lose steam. How Pulock will help Boychuk, is relieving him of the physical toll that his body takes on a nightly basis that a top-2 d-man entails. In terms of Pelech and Mayfield, Pulock’s role will allow either of them a chance to find their game and a consistent place instead of fighting all for one spot.
Pulock becoming a leader both on an off the ice is another factor for the Islanders to sustain success.
As a former first round pick, the pressure has been on Pulock since he first showed up in that playoff series against the Panthers to solidify his spot as a future cornerstone to hopefully make the Isles a contender. Now that he will be a full-time regular, he taking the reins as The Man on the blueline will give the franchise and the fans the player they have been waiting for a long time. He along with Mat Barzal are the new faces of the franchise — with John Tavares now playing in Toronto — and they are two players the team’s hierarchy are leaning on going forward into a new era.
A lot has been said about what people think the Isles are going to be this year, but if Pulock is banking on himself and he’s the player everyone expects him to be, the team will be going in the right direction no matter what.
The decision to send Kieffer Bellows and Josh Ho-Sang down to Bridgeport received a lot of criticism, but it’s not totally the worst thing.
“Two talented young players who need to grow their game in different areas,” Lamoriello said. “They need to go down, play a lot of minutes, play in all situations and gain strength and confidence in all areas of their game.”
Seeing them play on the same line and both get hopefully 20-22 minutes a night at the American Hockey League level will only make them more aware of the speed that comes with playing the NHL. Ho-Sang has already been in the pros, but playing big minutes in the minors and defending against the opponents top forwards could be what finally pushes him over the edge and forces the Isles brass to bring him up to the varsity. Bellows on the other hand, his shot is lethal, but there’s more to playing in the NHL than just scoring. Adjusting to the pro-style game and him using his big frame against men instead of boys should make Bellows even stronger when he finally gets the call to come up.
Hopefully, Devon Toews will not be joining Bellows and Ho-Sang down there anytime soon.
Toews showed it in last year’s training camp and before he got hurt in Decemeber he was more than ready to become a full-time NHLer, and he’s continued to show it all throughout camp the past few weeks. The Quinnipiac product is exactly what the Isles need on the blueline: Young, poised, and looking to prove himself. He looks like he belongs and played like he belongs. It would be foolish for the team to send him down or put Luca Sbisa in his spot.
The saying preached for awhile has been “play the kids”, and in Toews case, it’s more than warranted.
One last thought on the top-six: However Trotz sees it — Beauvillier-Barzal-Eberle, Lee-Barzal-Eberle, Beauvillier-Barzal-Bailey, Lee-Nelson-Eberle, Lee-Nelson-Bailey, Beauvillier-Nelson-Lee — they are still going to a very high-octane attack. Barzal and Bailey look like they can be a dangerous duo, Beauvillier looks primed for a monster season, Lee and Eberle are going to build off very productive campaigns, and Nelson is in a “prove it” scenario.
Despite many who will disagree, Nelson is the key to group. There’s a lot of pressure on him to thrive in his natural role.
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