Swinging for the Fences on Defense

We’re several weeks past the onslaught of free agency madness, still more than a month away from training camp, and right smack in the middle of the dog days of summer with the NHL.  The Islanders, after the acquisitions this off-season of Jaroslav Halak, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nikolai Kulemin, have addressed many of the holes that have plagued them in recent years.

All except one.

And everyone who follows the Islanders knows the huge question marks on defense the team has.  It’s no secret.  In three seasons we may be talking about how the defense is the strength of the team with talent seemingly on the horizon.  But for now?  It’s an anchor and could be the difference between a playoff appearance and early golfing again.

The only thing that people seem to know about the blue-line this season is that no one knows what to expect.  Is Travis Hamonic ready to take the next step and become a bona-fide top-pairing defense?  Are Calvin de Haan’s surgically repaired shoulders ready for the brunt of another full season?  How much time will Lubomir Visnovsky miss this season when his head explodes again?  Can Griffin Reinhart step into the NHL game and give the team solid minutes as a rookie?  And what is up with the third pairing between Thomas Hickey, Matt Carkner, Brian Strait, TJ Brennan and Matt Donovan?  It’s definitely enough to give you pause before planning a tail gate for those late-April games. (Photo credit: flickr/ kpkelly52)

It’s why Garth Snow has to think big when addressing the defense before training camp starts.  The team doesn’t need more waiver fodder, reclamation projects, or even third-pairing options.  Snow needs to swing for the fences and bring in a legitimate top-four defenseman, even if it means overpaying for one now. 

The organization is well past the point of “wait til next year” before making a significant move to improve the defense.  Perhaps you can find a team looking to shed salary and can pick up a vital piece that way.  Maybe you have to dip into the deep farm system you’ve acquired and move someone or someones.  The team has the cap space and players to offer to be serious bidders for any top-four defenseman hitting the market.    It’s not Milbury-esque…it’s rounding out a roster that has some interesting pieces and desperately needs a boost on defense.

There are some issues though.  The first: well who are you trading for?  At different points this summer there have been rumors of Keith Yandle, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Dion Phaneuf, Johnny Oduya, Zach Bogosian, and Johnny Boychuk being mentioned in trade talks.  That doesn’t mean that any of them will get traded or that there aren’t dozen other defensemen will be available.  Plus there is enough debate on whether those players would actually be an upgrade to the top-four.  For my money, I believe Yandle, Hjalmarsson, and Phaneuf would represent upgrades, while the others are certainly very capable defensemen in their own right that would be in the everyday lineup. 

However, is Yandle solid enough in his own end?  Is Hjalmarsson a product of his team?  Do you really want to look at Phaneuf's face the next seven years (although more Elisha Cuthbert has to mean something, right?) 

The other issue: what are you giving up?  Teams aren’t fond of giving away top-four defensemen on the cheap nor should they.  To translate, the Islanders would probably have to move a player they don’t want or would be tough to swallow.   Brock Nelson? Ryan Pulock? Ville Pokka?  Basically anyone outside of Tavares, Okposo, Hamonic, Strome and Reinhart (“the Core-Four plus One”) should be on the table. 

That's a harsh statement for a fan base that has gone through hell and back with this organization and can finally boast one of the strongest farm systems in the game.  Although you can say that the team has acquired strong depth throughout that even if they had to part with one or two of their better prospects, they still would have plenty of depth below.

Everyone would hate to see a guy like Nelson moved, and in no way should the organization gut what has taken seven years to rebuild.  But what if the return is a legitimate top-four defenseman that can be plugged in now and the future?  Yes, that move needs to be made.  It’d be criminal for this team to go into the season with so many questions marks on defense and roll the dice on the last season at the Coliseum. 

How much better does the defense look with Yandle sliding into the top-four and pushing Visnovsky to the third-pair where he can (hopefully) have more sheltered minutes and stay healthy?  Is Michael Grabner and Donovan enough to get the Coyotes to bite?  Or would they demand Ryan Pulock in any deal?  And isn't Yandle what all Islander fans hope Pulock becomes in the near future? (Photo credit: flickr/ Dpetriw78)

Listen, the Metropolitan Division is wide-open.  That doesn’t mean the Islanders are in a position to finish first or that they are the best team in the division (they won’t and they aren’t).  But if there is one thing these past playoffs proved, it’s that if you can get into the dance, anything can happen.  Just look at the Canadiens and Rangers who both went to the Conference Finals despite not winning their division and having to a win a game seven on the road in order to advance.  Yes, Pittsburgh might finish with 110 points and run away with the division.  But does anyone trust them in a best of seven? Of course not.

Snow has corrected many of his mistakes from prior summers already.  He has one more move to make.  Does he have it in him?  We’ll know soon enough.

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 and @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis.