Isles Evaluations: Getting Defensive

The New York Islanders have 34 games remaining on the season, having surpassed the mid-point of the year a few games ago. They currently sit 13th in the Eastern Conference and ten points out of the last and final playoff spot, trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, Winnipeg Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils.

With the second half of the year already seven games in, the Isles find themselves in a tight spot. There is still hope that they can compete for a late season rush, hoping to charge their way into the playoffs. However, losing both games to the Leafs this week, only earning one out of possible four points, has hurt their chances drastically. But if the Islanders commit to another second half-season in which they suddenly play their best hockey in the final stages of the year, they might just meet my prediction of falling just short of the post-season between the 9th and 11th spots - which is a serious improvement, whether you like it or not.

Earlier this week I took a look at the team's forwards and how they have produced so far while considering where they might fit in the team's future. It's time to do the same for the defense.

Mark Streit was named this team's captain for a reason - he is a leader on this team, always has been from the beginning. His stats and performance made him the safe and logical choice to wear the C on his chest, but this year he hasn't been the Mark Streit that we have come to know in previous years. Defensively he has been, well, alright, and offensively he just isn't the same. Streit only has three goals and 23 assists for 26 points in all 48 games the Isles have played this year. Throw in that he is a -21 (only Milan Jurcina is worse at -23). Could it be due to the pressure of playing as the team's number one leader? Could it be that last season's absence has set him back further than we all thought? Or even worse, is his body not up to playing to the level he used to as a result of last year's surgery? It's hard to tell, but I have always argued that Streit could use more offensive help when paired on the point. Sorry, but Jurcina, Steve Staios or Brian Rolston simply don't cut it. (Photo Credit: spotboslow/Flickr)

As already mentioned, Jurcina leads the team with the worst plus/minus. I guess last year's stat that indicated his presence in the line-up led to a winning record was a little misleading. With two goals and three assists and being on the ice for more goals scored against than for, Jurcina has shown that he is not a top-four defenseman and shouldn't be used as one. He does use his size along the boards fairly well, but inconsistently. He also isn't as quick as he should be for a defenseman that is played so often. My guess is that the man they call Juice will get a look from other team's around the league come the trade deadline. But don't expect a big return for the big guy. At best he would be a 5th or 6th defenseman on any other squad.

Steve Staios was a good filler on the bottom defense pairing for a while, but his slow skating and lack of offense has led to him being a healthy scratch over the past few games in favor of AHL'er Dylan Reese. And I'll admit, Reese has looked more like an NHL d-man lately while Staios hasn't really been missed on the blue line. But neither one of them are good fits as regular defenseman on this team. 

You can throw Mike Mottau into that category as well. It has been borderline difficult to watch Mottau play on a nightly basis, and his partner Mark Eaton has looked better on the ice without him. Many in the press box have theorized that Eaton plays worse when paired with Mottau because he has to over compensate for his partner being out of position and making several turnovers in all three zones of the ice. Eaton isn't supposed to be a points guy, but rather a defensive specialist. He hasn't been outstanding, but he has played well. There has rarely been a stretch this year, if one at all, where the same could be said for Mottau. 

Travis Hamonic put up 26 points in his rookie season last year (five goals, 21 assists) and currently has 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) this season in his second year in the NHL. Although his offensive numbers have been a little disappointing after seeing his potential last year, his play in his zone has been excellent. His shot from the blue line tends to get blocked more often than not, indicating that he needs to pick and choose his spots a little better. But his ability to block shots and play physical in front of his net has been a strong point to his game. The fact that he is the only defenseman with a plus rating (+2) supports his strong defensive play as well. What you are seeing are the sophomore slumps for Hamonic when playing offense, but a serious step in his development when it comes to playing responsibly in his own zone. He should be a second pairing defenseman on this team for some time and is emerging as a future leader for this hockey club.

Andrew MacDonald has been disappointing offensively as well. In Streit's absence last year, A-Mac put up career numbers from the blue line scoring four goals and 23 assists for 27 points in his second full season in the NHL. So far this year, MacDonald only has six points and is a -4. Over the first half of the season he looked a little out of place in the defensive zone, occasionally making a bad turnover or struggling with starting the rush out to the neutral zone. Lately he has been playing much better and is still a young defenseman at 25 years old only in his third year in the league. Everyone knows that he has chemistry with Hamonic, and the two do play well together, but shaking up the d-pairings to give these two a look with other defenseman might not be a bad idea. Overall, A-Mac should be a steady, reliable defenseman on this team for several years. (Photo Credit: Robert Kowal/Flickr)

One thing for certain going into this summer is that the defense will look different next year. Staios, Eaton, Mottau and Jurcina will be finishing out their contracts at the end of the season and it is doubtful that all four will be back. This will be Garth Snow's chance to evaluate his prospects in the farm system and add a better veteran presence on the blue line. Aaron Ness, Matt Donovan and Calvin de Haan are all worthy of looks for next season, the latter being most likely to make the team. Unfortunately injuries have continued to plague his development as he is forced to miss the AHL All-Star game with a left shoulder injury, but the organization has been very gradual with having him adjusting to professional hockey. The NHL seems as the likely next step; he's already dressed for one game with the Islanders this year. 

There is plenty of depth in the farm system, but more reliable offense as well as a steady physical presence should be required on the blue line for a team that has talked about the playoffs since the end of 2010. 

Keep an eye out for my next featured post to assess the Islanders goaltenders.

-Rob McGowan

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Erol Bal's picture

I see Mark Eaton traded at the deadline for a late round draft pick (3rd/4th rounder). Some team would come and pick him up for his veteran playoff leadership. He can serve as a bottom 6 Dman for Vancouver or any other well rounded team looking to add an extra boost to the blue line.

Rob McGowan's picture

I don't disagree with you, Erol. I can definitely see that happening as well. Same thing for Jurcina, although Eaton's experience will be more valuable.