By Jeff Capellini
They are words you don’t hear every day.
The Islanders are pretty stacked defensively.
That statement could actually prove to be true, provided the corps doesn’t suffer several devastating injuries.
Truth is, injuries happen and players miss games. The Isles are no different than any other club, but as the start of the 2016-17 season descends upon us, they appear to have the depth to withstand basically any injury. And if you throw in a three-headed goaltending monster that is loaded with ability, this team could very well be in every game it plays.
That’s not me trying to be overly optimistic. The fact remains the Isles have a top six on defense that, minus newcomer Dennis Seidenberg, is very cohesive. Travis Hamonic is entering his seventh season with the club while Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey are starting their fifth seasons. Nick Leddy, who seems on the cusp of greatness, and Johnny Boychuk, who has a fair amount to prove following a somewhat disappointing 2015-16 season, are set to begin their third go-arounds with the team.
And Seidenberg, though not a star, is a very solid NHL defenseman. He won a cup with Boychuk in Boston and was paid like a top performer before the Bruins decided to buy him out this summer. That’s just the economics of the game, so believe me when I tell you the Isles signing the 35-year-old for $1 million this season could very well prove to be one of the better decisions general manager Garth Snow has made in recent years.
Seidenberg is very good in his own end. He’s the anti-Brian Strait. That should be good enough for a lot of people.
So while the Islanders experiment up front with rookies and revolving-door auditions to play with John Tavares and Andrew Ladd, they have a defense they can feel good about.
Hamonic is the glue that holds it all together. When he rescinded his trade demand last spring, the Isles had become the recipients of the equivalent to a start-of-free agency splash signing. The 26-year-old is maybe the best bargain among defensemen in the NHL ($3.857 million AAV) and when healthy can be counted on as a serious shut-down defender.
People forget that Leddy is only 25, because he’s been in the league for a while. But with Hamonic, Boychuk and Seidenberg counted on to bring the body, Leddy will figure to have more opportunities this season to use his top-flight skating to help generate more offense. Leddy has the game to be in the Norris Trophy conversation, but in recent seasons has been asked to do a lot of things that have taken away from what he does best — getting the transition game going.
Boychuk had, by all accounts, a bit of a down year last season, but if he can avoid those annoying injuries, he should be a solid top-two pairing guy. He’s generally good at even strength and is a fearless penalty killer. The idea now is for head coach Jack Capuano to start trusting him more on the power play. Boychuk can bring the rubber from the point with the best of them. To continue to ignore this would be ill-advised.
Though pairings tend to never be set in stone, it’s clear de Haan and Hickey are interchangeable as Nos. 4 and 5 defensemen. I think Hickey often gets a bad rap from fans. He may be undersized, but he is extremely smart and clutch, as he always seems to know when to jump into the play on offense and is rarely caught out of position in his own end. De Haan, on the other hand, will likely be the one Capuano will be keeping his eye on as the season progresses. He has never really developed as an offensive defenseman and sometimes struggles with coverage lapses. While he’s still a good blueliner as far as league standards go, the Isles have alternatives at AHL Bridgeport who can step right in if any of the top six get hurt or struggle.
Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield can all play at the NHL level. They showed as much during previous short stints with the Isles. But for now they will hone their respective crafts on the outside looking in.
Pulock not starting the season with the Isles irked a lot of fans, given his prowess on the power play and all-around improved play as last season progressed. But he got caught up in a numbers game because the Isles wanted to keep 14 forwards, primarily so they could start off by doing nine-game trial runs with 19-year-old center Mathew Barzal and 19-year-old left wing Anthony Beauvillier.
Assuming at least one of those youngsters is returned to his junior club, my guess is we’ll see Pulock, because Seidenberg is a better fit as the seventh defenseman. You know what he is and what to expect. Pulock, on the other hand, needs to play and may not be the ideal guy coming in cold. He’d be better off playing every night at Bridgeport than wearing a tie in the press box.
Of course, all the potential the Isles have in their own end is predicated on Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss stopping pucks. Halak solidified his standing as the team’s No. 1 goaltender with his unreal performance for Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey. Greiss remains at the very least as a good of a backup netminder as you’ll find anywhere, as illustrated by his tremendous regular season and first round of the playoffs last season after Halak went down with a groin injury.
And the Isles may have something in youngster J.F. Berube, who may be short on experience but has impressed whenever he has played.
The issue really is no longer about who the starter should be. Halak is clearly the guy. The Isles need a true 1-2 punch, because neither of their veteran goalies has ever been the 65-plus start kind of guy. However, if both perform to their capabilities, there’s no reason why the Islanders’ tandem cannot be equivalent to another team’s horse that plays exclusively.
A lot of NHL pundits don’t believe in the 2016-17 Islanders. I do, because this game is, first and foremost, about how many times a team can put itself in position to win. The Isles’ defense and goaltending should provide a nightly opportunity, because the units compare favorably to that of the upper echelon teams in the Eastern Conference.
I firmly believe this team will ultimately be judged by how well the offense performs sans the veterans that left during free agency. But no one should sleep on the Islanders in their own end. They have a bunch of talented veterans that have done an awful lot of growing up together.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet