2013-2014 Isles Season Preview Continues: Defense

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The preview for the season begins with the forwards.

The preview labors onward with a look at defense.       

All great ice hockey teams are built from back to front, from goaltender on outward.  Stan Bowman would agree, as would Ken Holland, Lou Lamoriello, Peter Chiarelli, and many other successful GM’s and coaches.

Bill Torrey and Al Arbour sure as hell knew as much and built a team with an outstanding defensive corps that would win 4 straight Stanley Cups and a record 19 consecutive NHL playoff series.

So we move on to Phase 2 of the Isles Talk season preview which will focus exclusively on the defense of the New York Islanders.  Feel free to consider this the definitive, comprehensive, and somewhat well thought out preview that you have been yearning for all summer.

The Departed

Former captain Mark Streit is no longer with the Islanders after signing a 4 year deal with Metro Division rival Philadelphia Flyers at $5.25 mil per year.

Radek Martinek is also gone, probably now for good considering the defensive depth the Isles now boast at the prospect level.  This is, well, bittersweet I would say as I am a fan and supporter of Radek Mar-tee-nek.  To say he is a good guy is a grave understatement.  Best of luck Radek.

New Arrivals

Photograph courtesy of Newsday

Photograph courtesy of Newsday

None by the way of free agency or trade this offseason.  Via the 2013 NHL Entry Draft , the most notable acquisition was Ryan Pulock, he with the heavy shot taken 15th overall in June.  Highly unlikely he makes the big club out of camp but the scouts liked him, and the fans did too during the annual July scrimmage held at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum when his slap shot registered in the mid-90′s.


Plus (+)

Continuity on a few levels.  There are no coaching changes for the Islanders in terms of who is running the defense, and the rest of the team for that matter.  Coach Capuano has turned much of the defensive coaching responsibilities over to former Bridgeport Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson.  I like Brent, not afraid to say it, despite the fact that he looks like he is staring right into my soul during his intermission reports with Peter Ruttgaizer.  Yikes.  So, long story short, the system on the whole doesn’t change much.  And that’s a good thing.  Also we see consistency from a player standpoint as the Isles return much of their defensive staff from last year except the two noted above.

Contracts.  As mentioned, player-wise, the Isles return much of their defensive staff from last year.  Lubomir Visnovksy enjoyed last season with the club so much so that he re-upped, inking a contract for 2 years, $4.75 mil per.  This is a great deal for both sides.  Isles get someone to man the point on the first PP unit and Lubo gets a nice contract at 37 years of age.

The big news this past offseason was the new contract hammered out with Travis Hamonic.  See what I did there? OK.  Was anyone else a little bit surprised this happened, I mean of course in a good way?  The Isles number one shutdown defenseman, corps leader, and fan favorite got a $27 million, 7 year deal that will keep him in an Isles sweater from now (23 years old) all the way through his prime.  This is seemingly a sweetheart deal because it leaves plenty of room to add through free agency, trade, and / or sign some of the prospects to bigger and better deals as they prove and progress.

Lastly, well worth mentioning in terms of contracts, is the fact that Andrew MacDonald is in a contract year.  There has been a lot of hemming and hawing amongst the fanbase via Twitter and other various outlets as to whether the Islanders should resign A-Mac.  Dude.  Bro.  He led the team in ice time last regular season and was tied for third in the NHL for blocked shots.  This 27 year old cat is as important to the immediate future of this hockey club as he was to the late season and playoff ‘success’ the Isles had.  When he seriously hurt his hand in the Isles Game 4 win against the Pens last May, I knew the series was over.  The arguments against re-signing him are futile.  Sure the Isles are knee-deep in defensive prospects but honestly, be realistic here, about only half of those will pan-out.  Defenseman like A-Mac, believe it or not, are at a premium in the NHL.  If Garth can get him signed to a 3 or 4 year deal at a few million per, it’s a steal even if he truly is a second pairing type of player.

Defensive depth at the prospect level.  If you remember, GM Garth Snow pushed all his chips to the center of the table in June 2012 and drafted nothing but defensemen.  Every single last draftee was a d-man, with the notable big fella Griffin Reinhart being taken in the first round.  Wow.  Talk about addressing a glaring need.  Bill Belichick was even impressed. Fans were seeminly happy, albeit a little surprised.  Anyhow, they are stacked with young guys.  Some of the prospects, to name a few:  the aforementioned Ryan Pulock and Griffin Reinhart, Matt Donovan, Calvin de Haan, Scott Mayfield, Andrey Pedan, and Ville Pokka.  It will be an interesting story line during training camp as to which, if any, of these prospects stick with the big club.  My guess is either Matt Donovan or Calvin de Haan make the team out of camp.  The competition, likely for just one spot, will be intense.  I like Donovan.

Minus (-)

Loss of Mark Streit.  Most fans appreciate the impact that Streit had on the Islanders during his 4 year stint with the team.  Remember Game 4 last May against the Pens?  Uh-huh.  Big.  He didn’t miss many games either, that’s for sure, and likely played hurt a lot.  In terms of leadership, something that is difficult to measure, it’s hard to tell the void he leaves behind but I have a feeling that there lack of leadership will not be a problem on the team moving forward. . . . if you know what I mean.

Filling the void in terms of having an offensive-minded defenseman and power play QB will certainly be much more difficult, and a lot to ask likely of a young player stepping in.  It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, steps up to help out Visnovsky with providing offense from the blueline.  It was a luxury as an Isles fan, and certainly a big part of the team’s late season success, having Streit and Visnovksy on defense last year.

Lack of an impact free agency signing / top dollar defensive talent.  Garth Snow added nothing via free agency or trade to the Islanders defensive corps.  Did you expect him to?  (According to www.capgeek.com, the Islanders are dead last in payroll right now at $49.5 million).

You can argue that there were few worthy additions available, and you may be right.  Jay Bouwmeester was out there but St. Louis paid him the going rate for name-brand defensemen with a 5 year, $5.4 million deal.  Snow will only go down that road if he has the green light to spend and the Isles are much closer to taking the next step, and who earnestly knows if Bouwmeester can live up to that kind of dough.  Doug Murray?  T.J. Brodie?  Nah.  Got guys that fit those molds already.  At any rate, to be a team that reaches the later rounds of the NHL playoffs for much less money.  Snow will need to add a decent veteran defenseman (and forward for that matter) when the time comes to the next level of competitivenes . . . if the time comes.

Possible defensive pairings

What will the ’13-’14 defensive pairings look like come October?  Probably not much different than last year’s pairings, without of course Streit.  It also depends on which young fella(s) makes the roster out of camp.  Right now, I’d say Matt Donovan is the guy.  I think Calvin de Haan has a higher ceiling (likely so does Snow), but he has been set back by injuries to his shoulders so frequently the past three season it has likely inhibited his ascent up the ladder.  Why is Donovan ready?  He looks like he has maxed out at the AHL level.  With 75 games played, 14 G and 34 A he was tied for lead among defenseman in the AHL in points with 48.  Appears he has a bit of snarl to him to with 114 PIM last season in Bridgeport.  Those stats nearly mirror his ’11-’12 stats.  So without further adieu, here is what we may see in October . . .

Travis Hamonic – Andrew MacDonald (assuming his hand is healed & ready)

Lubomir Visnovsky – Thomas Hickey (or Brian Strait)

Matt Donovan – Brian Strait (or Thomas Hickey)

Side notes:  Matt Carkner will be called upon to provide some grit when needed.  Did you know Hickey, a former 4th overall pick, was a +9 last season?  First call-up will likely be de Haan.

Final Thoughts

Defensively, the New York Islanders will be better off going into the ’13 – ’14 season than they were heading into ’12-’13, despite the loss of Mark Streit.  If the Hickey / Strait and Viz pair can recapture some of the success they had together down the stretch last year, that gives the Isles 2 solid and versatile pairings, hopefully alleviating any extraordinary pressure on the third pairing.  They need to continue to get some scoring from their defensemen, a la the 2013 playoffs, if they are going to continue to grow and succeed.

Next up on the Isles season preview. . . Goaltending.  A whole ‘nuther ball of wax.

Enjoy your Labor Day weekend folks.  For the folks in Canada, Happy Labour Day as well!

You can reach me through e-mail via tobysmithny@yahoo.com . . . and on the Twitter @tobysmithny