If you already didn’t know by now, the New York Islanders will be a fully healthy squad when the NHL begins its 24-team playoff at the beginning of August.
That means a refreshed and re-energized defensive corps which not only will be hole once again with Adam Pelech returning but one that has depth and added experience.
Having those intangibles could make the Isles go very far in the postseason, farther than they’ve been able to get in their last two postseason appearances.
Now sure they’ll need their offense and goaltending to step up, but it’s the blueline which is Barry Trotz’s squad’s most important strength. We were witnesses this year to just how crucial having a healthy defense can be to the success of this team.
When Pelech went down in early January with a supposed season-ending Achillies injury, things began to crumble. Besides a losing record — the Isles went 10-13-7 with Pelech out — the entire D looked more vulnerable and less structured in their own zone. Several players, not known for making mistakes started to make them much too often. The pressure of replacing Pelech also forced veterans like Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and rookie Noah Dobson to struggle with heavier workloads. Even the addition of Andy Greene before the trade deadline didn’t help much in stopping the bleeding.
But that’s all in the past. The nine defensemen the Islanders will have when full-team training camps begin next week in Phase 3 of the NHL’s Return To Play program, provides them a huge advantage moving forward.
And their lies where the Isles can really make a deep run — Trotz will have a litany of options at his disposal. Meaning he can throw something different at an opponent at a moment’s notice.`
You can take it to the bank that Trotz will partner Pelech back up with usual his running mate, Ryan Pulock. Those two will be the number one pair. Pelech and Pulock were the biggest reason the Isles swept the Penguins in the first round in last year’s postseason. How they shut down Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the Penguins’ other top forwards was exceptional and was the model for how to counterattack a team’s most dangerous players.
That duo being back together immediately transforms the whole club and making the Isles a more robust team to play against.
Behind that twosome is an interesting mix.
Devon Toews and Scott Mayfield both had up and down campaigns before the year was suspended. As a pairing though, they’ve shown in the past they can be very dependable and sneaky good. They two were quiet but effective the previous spring against the Pens. Toews alone was the Isles’ best player in their second-round defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The other veterans, Boychuk, Leddy, and Thomas Hickey for that matter, also provide more vigor.
Boychuk being 100%, after the scary incident with him being cut by a skate to the face the week before the hiatus, supplies the Isles another needed element on the back end. Beyond his playoff experience, at 36, Boychuk is still that hard-nosed, gut-it-out d-man who is willing to pay the price, exemplified by his continuing nature to block shots and throw his body around. To win in the postseason, you need players like him.
For Leddy, he wasn’t having a bad year before the stoppage, but his game and numbers definitely weren’t up to his standard. Another chance to turn it on in the playoffs could bring out the best we’ve seen from him.
Regarding Hickey, it’s unlikely he will see any playoff action based on he’s the last player on the depth chart behind rookie Noah Dobson. Still, if he does see the ice, Hickey will be all recovered from his injuries during the season. Keep this in mind: don’t think his experience in past postseasons, plus not having played a single game with the big club all year, won’t provide him with that necessary chip on his shoulder. It most certainly will.
Then you have Andy Greene, who played well in his short run with the Islanders who came over before the deadline.
At 37, Greene knows the grind of going far in the playoffs — he’s played in the postseason six times in his career, including the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2012. Another solid option who can help benefit the Isles as the series and months go longer, Greene, if tabbed by Trotz, will be fresh and gives the Isles’ defense even more invaluable experience and veteran gumption.
To be successful in the NHL playoffs, your defense needs to be at its very best and stay healthy. The Islanders are no different. Their defense is going to be the deciding factor if they do end up playing for a Stanley Cup later this summer.