Isles' Defense Showing Their Potential
Regardless of their unexpected success taking them into the playoffs last year, there were many areas that the Islanders needed to improve coming into the current season. The core of the team was established but among many other things, the defensive corps was a major concern and the departure of captain Mark Streit only made things worse.
When faced with the decision of acquiring a replacement via free agency or trade, Garth Snow opted to do neither and fill the position from within the organization. Upon the arrival of training camp, the battle for the vacant spot was left to Matt Donovan and Calvin de Haan. Donovan ultimately won the spot out of camp but has had a rocky rookie season overall.
It is clear in watching his play that Donovan has above average offensive ability but he failed to find consistency in his game and as a result has had multiple trips to and from Bridgeport this season. Currently, it is de Haan who has been playing like a top 4 defenseman and that has been the case ever since his call up in late November.
Veteran and key power play component Lubomir Visnovsky has played well when he has been in the lineup, but his health has now become a serious concern. He is currently on the IR for the second time this season dealing with concussion symptoms that have plagued him multiple times during his career. As I'm sure you all know, head injuries are something that have to be taken very seriously and as much as I hate to say it, his career might now be in question.
While there have been many storylines over the past year regarding the defense, things don't appear to be as bad as many people seem to think. No matter how well the defense plays, if the Isles were to be without Visnovsky permanently it would certainly hurt the team. However the current defensive squad is getting the job done and is only getting better with each game.
Travis Hamonic is the veteran of the young group and is a leader both on and off the ice. Thomas Hickey has come more into his own this year, utilizing his speed well and has made some big plays defensively. Brian Strait has been solid when in the lineup, but has battled broken bones this year so his play has been limited. Kevin Czuczman came out of nowhere for a lot of us, but the Lake Superior State alum has looked solid in his limited time with the Isles so far. He will need to mature and bulk up a bit, but that will only come with time and experience. Finally, the previously mentioned Donovan and de Haan have been contributing as well. The young group has anchored the Isles to a 5-0-1 streak over the past 6 games, their longest of the season.
The icing on the cake for the Islanders is that top defensive prospects Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock are just about ready to make the jump professionally. Reinhart will all but certainly be with the Islanders next year and although Pulock may stay in Juniors for another year, it wouldn't surprise me that with an impressive training camp he ends up in either Bridgeport or with the Isles. In addition, Bridgeport has two near NHL ready defenseman in Scott Mayfield and Andrey Pedan.
I am fully aware that all of the defensemen discussed can't be on the roster at the same time so with that said, injuries may arise, some may go through phases of poor play and it will likely be a revolving door next season for the majority of these guys, but there is a ton of talent within the organization and we have only seen a portion of it. I will say that I do still believe the Islanders need to actively pursue and acquire a veteran top 4 defenseman this summer. It just has to happen. A veteran presence will go a long way in the development of the youth while also creating healthy competition.
In summation, while an addition still needs to be made to the defense, the home grown talent is carrying it's weight right now and that is a good sign for this group looking forward to next season.