The New York Islanders certainly weren’t one of the most flashy or exciting teams to watch in the NHL last season. New York ranked 11th overall and seventh in the Eastern Conference in goals per game, and on the power play, the Islanders were below average, at 17th in the league.
Goaltending wasn’t a particular strength either, as New York finished 13th in goals allowed per game.
This offseason, there’s been a lot of talk about whether the Islanders will be better offensively after all the additions and departures at forward. In those discussions, what gets lost is the fact New York will return all the important parts of its defense, which is a blue line that very well could be one of the best in the NHL.
New York didn’t have a clear cut No. 1 defenseman a year ago, but their top five is about as good as anybody’s.
It all starts with 25-year-old Travis Hamonic, who led all Islanders skaters in ice time last season. Although he does have some offensive skills, Hamonic is mostly used as a defensive defenseman, and he’s rapidly becoming one of the best ones in the league.
In addition to leading the team in minutes, he also had five goals and 21 points while posting a 49.7 Corsi For percentage. That was good enough for Hamonic to also have a 0.7 Relative Corsi For percentage.
Last November, Hamonic requested to be traded to a team in western Canada in order to be closer to his family, but fortunately for New York, he rescinded that request so he could stay in Brooklyn. Right-handed defensemen in their mid-twenties who lead their team in minutes and only cost about $3.86 million per season don’t exactly grow on trees.
Of course, the need for offensive defensemen has probably never been greater in today’s NHL, but that’s why pairing Hamonic next to Nick Leddy or Johnny Boychuk is so effective. Both Leddy and Boychuk are quick, puck-moving defensemen, who together combined to record 14 goals and 65 points last season.
If New York had a No. 1 defenseman heading into 2015-16, it probably would have been Boychuk. But now 32 years old, the nine-year veteran gave way to 24-year-old Leddy during the second half of the season. After the All-Star break, Leddy had 22 points and a plus-2 rating in 34 games.
Placing Leddy and Hamonic on the top unit means the Islanders have a very smart, experienced former top pair defenseman in Boychuk on the second pairing. Among Islanders defensemen with at least 70 games played, Leddy had the best Corsi For Percentage at 50.6 percent and the top Relative Corsi For Percentage at 2.0 percent.
On special teams, Leddy runs the point effectively on the top power-play unit while Hamonic and Boychuk play vital roles on the penalty kill. Boychuk and Hamonic led the Islanders in shorthanded minutes and helped the team finish with the fourth-best penalty kill percentage.
Boychuk isn’t going to be asked to do as much as he was earlier in his career, but if New York is going to have one of the best defenses, he will have to improve his possession numbers, which dropped off considerably compared to 2014-15. Boychuk also didn’t score a single point in 11 postseason games.
Look for coach Jack Capuano to cut back on Boychuk’s minutes just a bit and give him slightly easier even strength minutes. Capuano has his choice between Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey, both of which are left-handed shots, as Boychuk’s (a right-handed shooter) partner on the second pairing.
De Haan was fourth on the team in ice time, behind only Hamonic, Leddy and Boychuk, so de Haan is the front runner for a top-four role. He had two goals and 16 points with a plus-3 rating in 72 games. De Haan also blocked 198 shots, fourth-most in the NHL.
But Hickey was even more productive in fewer games. He played 62 contests, scoring six goals and 17 points with a plus-9 rating, which was third-best on the team and second-highest among all Islanders defensemen. Hickey led the Islanders defense in postseason scoring.
The sixth and final starting spot on the Islanders blue line is perhaps the most intriguing one. New York has a pair of 21-year-olds, Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech, both ready for a top-six role.
Pulock is probably the most prepared. He played 15 games with the Islanders last season, scoring two goals and four points. That’s a small sample size, but his 51.7 percent Corsi For percentage is certainly encouraging too. He had a 7.8 percent Relative Corsi For percentage, which was highest among any Islanders skater who played at least 15 contests. Pelech tallied two assists in nine NHL games last season.
Another defensive prospect, 23-year-old Scott Mayfield, could also receive some playing time if injuries occur. He has 11 games of NHL experience.
With every top eight blue liner except Boychuk 27 or younger, the Islanders defense should only continue to improve. At the very least, the New York blue line is extremely stable, as there were virtually no changes made after last season.
That’s a welcomed site for a team undergoing major change at forward.