Profiling the Islanders defense as Freddy finds a new home

First, some housekeeping: Bravo and thanks to everybody who is making use of the FanPosts and FanShots to share theories (FanPost) and news (FanShots), and stir on-going discussion during this slowest month of hockey news. That's absolutely what they are there for. One of these days I'll even get around to posting a proper guide to how best to use both. Also, in the event of duplicates, I might delete one -- if your FanShot has been removed, don't take it personally, it's just a way to keep a topic's discussion focused on a single (already existing) thread.

Freddy Meyer IV's signing with Atlanta (Godspeed, ol' Fourth) means all of the significant Islanders UFA's not named Richard Park from last year's squad have found a home. (We'll just stick with the summer-long understanding from Garth Snow via Newsday's Katie Strang that captain Doug Weight is coming back.)

With or without Weight's signing, by my calculations and a hand from CapGeek the Islanders are at the cap floor, no matter which low-salaried D or forward makes the initial 23-man roster.

So with dust settled, while some still hope for another forward addition, on the blueline we at least know that we have here a major transformation. Just how has the blueline's profile changed? I'm glad I asked that question...

Last year Meyer, as he has multiple times in his career, filled the role of 6th/7th defenseman who steps in from the pressbox to take bigger minutes and immediately starts leveling every forward who dares underestimate his 5'10" frame. As last-pair D-men go, there was a lot to like about the scrappy Meyer -- particularly in the final quarter of the season, when in Andy Sutton and Andrew MacDonald's poorly coinciding absences he became the Islanders' most intimidating defenseman. (Yes, that is both a compliment to him and an indictment of the blueline.)

However, Meyer's career record is that of someone who does that only in partial-season bursts, and not consistently enough to avoid press box duty and the occasional waiver claim. Add to it his injury history -- something even the Thrashers' official blog noted -- and the temptation to read his final quarter of 2009-10 as a career turn (nutrition revelation or not) should be resisted. Still, it's fair to ask whether swapping in Milan Jurcina -- younger, bigger, but notoriously less physical -- for Meyer is the right one.

And the answer, at that low level on the depth chart, might just lie in viewing how the whole blueline now stacks up, with some right-shooting guys (a relative rarity) like Jurcina replacing left-shooting guys (like Meyer) to give the whole blueline corps a more balanced, technically bigger look.

 

2009-10 vs. 2010-11: Who Has Hand?

This equation would be different without the addition of fellow right-shooting James Wisniewski, who fell into Garth Snow's lap. (That's not to discredit Snow on the acquisition though; Snow made his run at the top-dollar guys and likely knew fallback options like Wiz would be there, provided he wait it out.)

So here's a comparison of last year's major blueline characters versus this year's. No one knows how healthy they'll be, how well they'll gel, whether any of them are as adept at combating SUV's as Brendan Witt was. But we can bet that Snow & Co. had a method to this overhaul.

2009-10 Islanders Lbs. Hght. Age Hand TOI PP PK 2010-11 Islanders
Lbs. Hght. Age Hand TOI PP PK
Mark Streit 197 6.0 32 L 25:42 5:12 1:47 Mark Streit 197 6.0 33 L
Jack Hillen 200 5.11 24 L 20:42 1:46 2:14 Jack Hillen 200 5.11 24 L
Andy Sutton 245 6.6 34 L 20:49 0:12 2:28 James Wisniewski 205 5.11 26 R 24:20 2:32 3:28
Radek Martinek 203 6.1 33 R 22:48 0:46 2:22 Mark Eaton 204 6.2 33 L 19:45 0:59 2:43
Bruno Gervais 205 6.1 25 R 20:01 1:05 2:24 Radek Martinek 203 6.1 34 R
Freddy Meyer 192 5.10 29 L 16:46 0:04 1:51 Andrew MacDonald 188 6.1 23 L
Brendan Witt 223 6.2 34 L 15:15 0:02 2:16 Milan Jurcina 236 6.4 27 R 17:26 0:05 2:19
Andrew MacDonald 188 6.1 23 L 20:05 1:41 1:16 Bruno Gervais 205 6.1 26 R
Dylan Reese
205 6.0 25 R 15:02 0:07 1:17 Dylan Reese 205 6.0 26 R
Mark Katic
185 5.11 20 L n/a ~ ~ Mark Katic
185 5.11 21 L
Dustin Kohn 200 6.2 22 L 11:36 0:00 0:10 Dustin Kohn
200 6.2 23 L
Mark Flood
190 6.1 25 R 12:43 Travis Hamonic
215 6.2 20 R

Note: All ice time figures are from 2009-10 only. I didn't duplicate the returning Isles' ice-time figures on the right side so as not to confuse that issue.

I don't generally advocate putting a whole lot of thought into left- or right-handedness on defense (Editor's question: Why did you compose this post, then?). But it is a factor on each team, and every team deals with the fact that good right-shooting defensemen are rarer than their lefty counterparts.

So if you look at how the Islanders began last season, you see their only two right-handed shots were Gervais and Martinek. If Scott Gordon ever had the spot game-situation need of a righty, those were his options, and Martinek's season-ending injury limited them even further. By the end of the year, Dylan Reese -- a mini-revelation, in my book -- came along, and Mark Flood got spot duty as a fill-in. That was the extent of righty options.

This year, however, they shape up much better in this category: Wisniewski is a legit threat with his righty shot. Martinek is back (fully healthy, but he's always an injury risk). Jurcina comes in as a depth guy, and Reese is an enticing option if anyone gets hurt. I haven't even mentioned Gervais yet, and oh by the way, the Isles new most promising blueline prospect just might be Hamonic, another right-shooting guy.

Roles: Better Fits?

If I were a betting man -- and maybe I'm betraying my hopes here -- I'd expect to see much less Gervais on both the PP and PK this season. If he is used in his "proper" role, then he's a 3rd-pairing or 7th guy who doesn't have to carry too much load. Those are probably the situations in which he can show the Good Bruno we see from time to time.

I would also suggest that Hillen be used less on the PK, with his (and Sutton's, and Bruno's) minutes replaced by the incoming Eaton, Wisniewski, and possibly Jurcina -- as well as by MacDonald and Martinek when healthy.

On the powerplay, inserting Wisniewski into the mix with stalwart Streit, a year-older Hillen, and a when-healthy Doug Weight means there isn't really an excuse to have Gervais or MacDonald out there on the powerplay.

Size: Better Distributed?

In the size department has come a more subtle shift. Jurcina is much bigger than Meyer but apparently doesn't play that way. Wisniewki is a little bigger than Meyer but plays as physically as Sutton. Eaton is a slightly bigger guy though hardly a hitting machine (he was credited with 27 hits for the Pens in 79 games last season, last among regulars). But with more guys in more appropriate roles, there is definitely an argument that the Islanders will have the size and physicality better distributed throughout the blueline.

Overall, in physical terms this lineup no longer consists of "Hopefully Sutton lays a big hip check tonight." If Hamonic should happen to make the team or see significant time later, that makes the profile all the more dangerous (and righty).

*  *  *

In short, while Snow was unable to land any of the sexy big fish on the blueline UFA market this summer, just by virtue of having more guys playing to their own strengths, barring major injury (knock on wood) the Islanders defensive corps should be noticeably better than last season.

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