2011-12 Islanders Preview: The Defense

When Dan(ny) met Travis.

The question of how Garth Snow addressed the defense this summer has been a hot topic in recent discussions at this site. That topic won't fully sort itself out in my eyes until the evidence of regular season games piles up.

But this particular preview post is focused on what the Islanders blueline has at the pro level now, how that might change over the course of 2011-12, where they have vulnerabilities, and where they are better-positioned than 2010-11.

The easiest, biggest, most obvious variable: Mark Streit is back. And Streit, well, he can play some Skynyrd.

2010-11

Goals Allowed: 258, 3.15/GP (27th) (10 empty-netters)
5-on-5: 176 (29th)

Right away those goal totals look damning, although the blame does not lie solely on the blueline. The goaltending's collective .902 save percentage ranked 23rd in the league, with Rick DiPietro, Mikko Koskinen and Nathan Lawson combining for 40 games of sub-.900 play. Up front, the Austro-Dane-Nigerian über line of Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo was the only forward line to reliably control play against any opposition.

Games Played

Perhaps the most symbolic factoid about last year's blueline is this: Radek Martinek and Jack Hillen were its most healthy members. (Well, technically Travis Hamonic was, but he wasn't called up until a quarter of the way in.)

Injury Waiting to Happen 2010-11 GP
Radek Martinek 64
Jack Hillen 64
Travis Hamonic 62
Andrew MacDonald 60
Bruno Gervais 53
Milan Jurcina 46
Mark Eaton 34
Dylan Reese 27
Ty Wishart 20
Mike Mottau 20
Mark Katic 11
ATO Guy A 1
ATO Guy B 1
ATO Guy C 1

Strengths

Adding Streit to that mix should make a world of difference, possibly more significant than any other variable. Another 60-plus game season from young Hamonic should be even more impressive than his rookie year. Removing Gervais, less of Reese (presumably), more of Jurcina (one can hope) should all help.

If healthy, the top three of Streit, MacDonald and Hamonic represent a trio of defensemen who can get the upper hand in all three phases of the game. Put one adequate partner into that mix, and the Isles have a reliable top four.

And this is probably reaching, but if any of the trio of Aaron Ness, Matt Donovan or Calvin De Haan have even a semi-Hamonic-like evolution in Bridgeport, they could provide support during the second half.

 

Weaknesses

As is often mentioned here, Eaton, Mottau and MacDonald are coming off hip surgeries, which doesn't mean anything by itself -- new injuries are equally likely to occur -- but does make one worry of relapses. A setback to MacDonald would be much more significant than a setback to Mottau, whose effectiveness was already watered down before being shut down last season.

Eaton and especially Jurcina are quietly more effective than they're given credit for, but they are the type for whom everything must be just right, it seems, for them to be plus players. Jurcina is currently nursing a training camp groin injury.

Snow's run at Christian Ehrhoff would have slotted in a new guy at #4 or at least #5-6 with special powerplay duties, but it wasn't meant to be -- not without a Sabres-level overpayment, apparently. Ehrhoff was an interesting case because there wasn't another guy like him on the market (a market that almost didn't exist, with every marquee name signing before hitting July 1), and yet ... getting him to sign on carried some coniderable long-term risk. That may yet turn out to be a fortunate strikeout.

Meanwhile, would-be 7/8 guy Katic is already out long-term with a preseason shoulder injury.

A lot of observers, myself included, had hopes for Wishart after his steady play in the fourth quarter, backed up by positive possession stats. But he had a weak camp, was put through waivers, and represents an interesting study of stats vs. "somethin's off there" evaluation.

The topic of Wishart leads to the other weakness, or at least great vulnerability: How much is this team expecting from veteran Steve Staios? Staios' recent years have not been good, which is why he was in the training camp tryout bin this summer. After a camp of Garth Snow and Jack Capuano watching him closely, I can buy that he did enough to impress them on and off the ice. The concern is that this was under play-for-your-career conditions, and not the grind of an 82-game season that turns once-valued vets into shells of their younger selves.

 

Bottom Line

So much depends on injuries -- and injuries are inevitable on every NHL blueline, every season. Survival turns on who steps in and how well. In that department, the Islanders have a lot of wild cards, from the mix of dinged-up average veterans to the prospects who might provide a boost by the season's second half.

As with the goaltending, the Isles have some insurance if things go wrong, but the insurance itself carries questions, too.

Meanwhile, despite their health Martinek did not have a good year last season and Hillen had an awful first half before rebounding. Yet it's still tough to part with the familiar. Their departures could end up creating important opportunities, or it could end up eliciting a lot of "If only we'd have done X, Y and Z."

Kind of like the 2011-12 Islanders blueline overall.

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