By Daniel Friedman
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The Islanders and Flyers have this weird, sort of symbiotic relationship.
There was a time when New York couldn’t beat Philadelphia if its life depended on it. Then the Isles started giving their long-time division rivals all of their spare defensemen.
Now, the Flyers are a team the Isles must look to as an example — not in terms of winning hockey games, but for infusing more of their youth into the lineup and becoming a better team because of it.
Shayne Gostisbehere has transformed Philly’s defense from an offensive standpoint. He’s chipped in 14 points in 18 games and has been a viable threat both on the power play and in 3-on-3 overtime.
Originally called up to fill in for the injured Mark Streit (former Islander alert), Gostisbehere has taken the opportunity given to him and proven himself worthy of a regular spot.
Why is this relevant to the Islanders? Because despite being right in the thick of things on the Eastern Conference playoff race, they’ve gotten very little offensive production out of their blueliners and have a young gun in Bridgeport that can help fix that.
His name is Ryan Pulock. You may have heard of him. He’s got a rocket of a shot and can quarterback a power play, which is something that nobody on the current roster seems capable of doing.
The Isles’ defense hasn’t been very productive, and players that were last season haven’t been able to repeat the feat. Johnny Boychuk has 13 points and Nick Leddy has just nine. Both approached the 40-point mark in 2014-15, but it doesn’t look like that’ll happen in this season.
To put it into perspective, Patrick Kane has just three less points than the entire Islanders’ defense combined (50).
Of course, away from the puck is a different story altogether for Boychuk and Leddy, as both have been the studs we’ve come to expect them to be. However, their inability to produce has hurt the power play and the offense as a whole.
When defensemen aren’t active on the rush, that means there are less instances of the puck being moved down low or worked to the forwards. There’s less flow and, therefore, less scoring opportunities.
The Islanders currently sit 16th in the NHL on the power play, clicking at a rate of 18.4 percent. They have gone from seventh, to 10th, to 12th in goals per game. Pulock, the 15th overall pick in the 2013 draft, scored 17 goals for Bridgeport last season and is tied for the scoring lead amongst Sound Tiger defensemen in 2015-16.
It’s a match made in heaven, if heaven were the NHL Entry Draft.
There’s two parts to this. First, as has already been discussed, the Isles could use some more firepower on their blueline. And second, Pulock has paid his dues in both Canadian juniors and the American Hockey League.
How much more does the organization need to see from him before he finally gets the nod? There’s a lot you can learn by playing in the AHL, but there’s a lot more you can learn about being an NHLer from getting experience on the big stage.
At a certain point, you have to let your younger players go through those growing pains, even if that means they make some mistakes along the way — something most of them will do, and likely multiple times.
I wouldn’t necessarily send Pulock over the boards to shadow Alex Ovechkin right now if I were head coach Jack Capuano, but put him on the power play? Sure, why not? What exactly do the Islanders have to lose at this point by letting him take a whirl with John Tavares?
Perhaps he can figure out a way to steer this team in the right direction with the man-advantage, something the Isles have struggled to get right all season long.
Sounds like an obvious solution, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple — mainly because general manager Garth Snow complicated the situation by bringing Marek Zidlicky aboard; a move I liked at first, but not at the expense of a roster spot for Pulock. I liked him as a solid option for a spare, and his lineup status over the last few weeks has indicated he may now be transitioning towards that type of role.
Should that be the case, it would then make sense to go ahead and waive Brian Strait, keep Zidlicky as the seventh defenseman and insert Pulock into the lineup. If he performs, he stays. If he doesn’t, he goes back to Bridgeport and you either call Strait back up or someone else who would fit that depth role.
It’s obvious to me that, if and when Travis Hamonic is dealt, Pulock would be the one to jump into the lineup (depending on who comes back in the trade). That said, I don’t think there’s any reason he should have to wait that long to at least get his shot.
While the Islanders have certainly placed an emphasis on defense this season, they can’t forget about offense. Pulock is a guy who can bring it, and who can perhaps breathe some life and a fresh perspective into this hockey team.
Make the call, Garth.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @bardownhowitzer