One recurring comment I keep hearing on this blog is that the Isles have great need of a "Top 4 Defenseman," and that their current failure to acquire such a player has been a major fault of the Isles' Free Agency so far. Some people go so far as to cite the loss of Radek Martinek as the cause of this need; others simply point out that the Defense was one of the team's major weaknesses last year and yet the only thing the Isles have done to address this deficiency has been to let Jack Hillen and Radek Martinek GO, along with failing to sign Christian Ehrhoff.
But in reality, this isn't quite the case.
Let's get one thing clear here: Defense WAS a major problem for the Islanders last year. Both Marc Eaton and Mike Mottau put up disappointing performances - Mottau was really terrible, though Eaton was not as bad as he seemed - and got injured pretty quickly. Dylan Reese and Bruno Gervais were godawful at D; both of them made fans cringe when they were on the ice. And Radek Martinek, no longer facing as tough opposition in the past, also put up his worst year in a while, despite being one of the most healthy members of the D core. The end result was that the Islanders gave up the 3rd most SoG per game (at even strength), and unlike the two "worse teams" in the statistic, Boston* and Carolina, they did not quite have a great goaltender to prevent them from giving up a ton of goals.
*Note: Boston's SoG is misleading: With the score tied, they basically gave up a lot less shots on goal. What occurred here is that Boston managed to go up on opponents pretty damn often, and then they relaxed their edge on O, allowing opponents to take more shots (no doubt a task made easier by having Tim Thomas). Boston was NOT a bad defensive team last year; this is simply the result of them having the lead quite often.
However, once again I reiterate: while the Defense was a clear major problem last year, the Isles do not have a desperate need to acquire a so-called top-4 D-Man. In fact, it's almost certain, barring a bunch of unfortunate circumstances, that the D is going to be far better this year than last year.
The Islanders Defense core for next year lines up like this right now:
Top 3 D-Men:
34 Year Old Mark Streit
25 Year Old Andrew Macdonald
21 Year Old Travis Hamonic
Next 3 D-Men (In Some Order)
35 Year Old Mark Eaton
34 Year Old Mike Mottau
29 Year Old Milan Jurcina
7th D-Man (Likely to make the Roster, Currently)
24 Year Old Ty Wishart
D-Men on the Bridge in case of Injury:
27 Year Old Dylan Reese (I don't like it either, but he got a QO and is likely the first one up)
22 Year Old Mark Katic
20 Year Old Calvin De Haan
21 Year Old Matt Donovan
First, it should hopefully be apparent to you all that the addition of Mark Streit to the D Core drastically improves the team's Defense. Streit will probably not be as good as he was in his first two Isles seasons - he's several years older and coming off of injury - but should be at least as good as Jack Hillen or Radek Martinek and probably better by a good deal than both.
Second, you'll note I've bolded several players ages: 6 players to be exact. Why? To point out how freaking young they are. This shouldn't come as news to anyone, but players who are really young USUALLY (not always) develop and get better with more experience. So looking at the Defensemen who should crack the Isles out of training camp:
1. Andrew Macdonald was essentially our #1 D-Man last year and was only 24, definitely not yet in his prime, and having just had a first season as a full time #1 D-Man, he came out pretty damn impressively. Also he was supposedly playing with injury for the last part of the year, so he should be better post-surgery.
2. Travis Hamonic, playing #2 D-Man (and #1 when AMac was out) for 3/4 of the year, was ONLY TWENTY YEARS OLD LAST YEAR! Meanwhile, he came out with AMAZING numbers, well worthy of a #1 Defenseman and put up 26 points to boot. If you don't think Hamonic, having done that at such a super-young age, is going to develop further and get better next year, you're crazy.
3. Ty Wishart, who will probably either start the season as the #7 D-Man or 1st man up from the Bridge (if they sign another D-Man), was only 23. Meanwhile, despite an awkward size, the kid showed some very impressive stuff while up on the Isles, and despite not playing top competition, put up some very impressive possession numbers. Also he has size. And did I mention he was TWENTY THREE? Once again, he's likely to get better, not worse next year.
That's Basically HALF of the D-Core, who should get better next year, two of which will get major minutes. Add that to Mark Streit, and you have 4 of the 7 likely D-Men to make the roster who will be superior to last year's equivalent D-Men. That'll improve the defense by quite a bit, even if the other guys on the roster stay the same or get worse by a little bit.
And that's not all: Calvin De Haan, only 20 years old next year, is likely to make the NHL team sometime in the next season - though he won't as quickly as Hamonic unless there's either major injuries or he starts kicking the AHL's ass. While he's not as hyped as Hamonic perhaps was, he's a pretty good prospect who will improve the D even further.
Matt Donovan (21 years old next year), is also likely to eventually crack the defensive lineup and be an improvement over the bottom 3 D-Men in 2011 and the Defensemen in 2010. Oh and Mark Katic (22 years old) will surely be better, though he's likely to be the worst of any of these young guys.
So why is Garth reportedly looking to upgrade the Defense by trade? Well, remember people, the names that have been mentioned so far: Christian Ehrhoff, Keith Yandle, even Bryan McCabe.
THESE ARE ALL OFFENSIVE DEFENSEMEN
None of these guys are known for their Defense (though Yandle shouldn't be too bad), they're all guys who would contribute to the team's offense - in particular any of the three would be an apt Power Play Quarterback. These are not the guys who would improve the ability of the team to stop shots, but are guys who could increase the lethal efficiency of the power play.
Now there's an interesting question here: If Streit is healthy and coming back, why do we need a PP Quarterback? My suspicion? They'd like to rest Streit more on the Power Play, and none of the other D-men are really great at being a PP Quarterback (Macdonald wasn't horrible, but still not great). The addition of one of these guys would allow the team to rest the aging Streit and ensure he would be ready for the defensive challenges he would face on PK or at even strength.
I hope it's clear to you all the truth: The Islander Defense, by virtue of young talent, and the recovery of Mark Streit, should be greatly improved next year, absent the impact of injuries. It is not a huge concern; most certainly not such that the team should overpay to acquire a good Defenseman. This team's D core shows a ton of promise and may very well be a strength next year....even if we don't actually do anything about it right now.