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Watling: Hickey Stepping Up, Offers Long-term Solution to Defensive Depth Issues

Thomas Hickey returned to the Islanders’ lineup for a pair of games in the absence of Noah Dobson, and boy did he deliver. Beyond the pair of wins, the team rallied behind Hickey who waited over 650 days to take the ice for the big club once again.

“He played his heart out,” Casey Cizikas said. “What he’s been through definitely isn’t easy. As a friend and I played alongside him for a long time here – to see him go out there and play the way that he did, that was something special.”

In his first game since May of 2019, Hickey was outstanding in a 6-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. He contributed two assists while ending the two games with a +2 rating. For the Isles, a team that is notoriously weak in defensive depth this year, Hickey’s performance goes beyond the pair of victories.

In a year in which one small blip in COVID-19 protocol could derail a player or group of players’ seasons, it is imperative to have depth. Even in a normal year, injuries happen all the time and depth is needed to step up. Prior to Dobson’s placement on the COVID-19 list, the Islanders were the only team to skate just six defensemen in every game, 28 games to be exact.

After Hickey’s first game of the season, head coach Barry Trotz was more than impressed.

“There’s probably not a person in that locker room that wasn’t wishing Thomas a real good night here, and he played really well,” the Isles’ bench boss noted. “Thomas is an outstanding person first and was outstanding for not playing in a long time.”

This is crucial for the Islanders who are up against the salary cap, even with the LTIR money to spend from Anders Lee’s injury. If Hickey can sustain himself as a legitimate seventh defenseman, something he seems to be, the organization can then focus its assets on replacing Lee. The Islanders have been tied to Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings, Kyle Palmieri of the New Jersey Devils and Taylor Hall of the Buffalo Sabres. These bigger-ticket acquisitions could be stomached if the Isles did not have to spend a second-round pick on an extra defender at the deadline. In my eyes, Hickey can be that acquisition.

Hickey’s contract, which ends after the 2021-22 season, is more than reasonable at a $2.5 million cap hit. While it is not ideal for a seventh defenseman who may typically make the league minimum or $1 million, the team-friendly deals of Adam Pelech ($1.6 million) and Scott Mayfield ($1.45 million), according to CapFriendly, make it more than palatable. 

The 32-year-0ld has plenty of experience, playing 451 regular-season games for the Islanders. This affords him the ability to be more of a “plug and play” defender, not needing constant reps to be reliable. As Hickey said, it was not all that difficult to stay ready physically, as “it is a lot more exhausting” to be mentally ready. One can imagine that a game every week or two is more than enough to keep Hickey ready for the playoffs if his number is called. 

Beyond his numbers in the regular season, Hickey has been an excellent playoff performer. In 24 games, he has six points and an impressive 41 hits. He seemed to ramp it up to another level the postseason, becoming stout defensively and a real physical presence, something that meshes well in Trotz’s style.

Dating back to 2014-16, where Hickey played 18 playoff games in two seasons, he actually led all defenders on the Isles in expected goals per 60 with 0.28 per Natural Stat Trick. His relative Corsi for, compared to the rest of the team, was the second-best among defenders with at least five games played; his number was 2.83, second behind Johnny Boychuk.

Hickey also has a great level of hockey IQ as a former first-round pick. He knows how to transform his game and plug into any position among the three defensive pairs. Additionally, he is a role model and a great team leader. As a veteran, he demands respect and could help fill the void left by Lee’s absence.

While he has been through so much adversity in his playing career — and dealt with emotional and physical setbacks the last two years — this stretch is the time for Hickey to show off and become the bottom pair or seventh defender the Islanders desperately need.

 

 

Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattWatling99

 

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