A Need? Islanders Depth Signings Point to Proverbial 'Toughness'

"No, Konopka didn't put me up to this. Why do you ask?"

With the New York Islanders adding Matt Carkner, Eric Boulton, Mike Halmo, Blair Riley and Brandon Defazio to the system, combined with the ever-larger size of their slate of 2012 draft picks, it's tempting to interpret a higher emphasis on size and proverbial toughness within the organization -- though at the other end Micheal Haley and Trevor Gillies have left in the annual AHLer recycling drive. (Sound Tigers beatwriter Michael Fornabaio picked up that Bridgeport is apparently bringing Brett Gallant back as well.)

That toughness/"soft" thing is a much-debated topic among Islanders fans and media, one that draws out tired philosophical battles but at minimum boils down to one fragment of common ground: It's nice to be tough and to be able to defend yourself when a game turns into "old time" hockey; but it offers diminishing returns if you don't have hockey talent to go with it.

By and large, you can't teach an enforcer new skills. The KHL-bound Gillies is what he is, and even the beloved Ranger/Wolfpack-bound Haley probably doesn't have much ceiling left to reach. But with all the young, skilled prospects on the way both at forward and defense for the Islanders and Sound Tigers, you can understand why the Isles continue to look for protective guys to ride shotgun during their pivotal developmental years.

On that note, something Gallant said in the story about his return caught my eye.

Gallant talked to the local Journal Pioneer about the challenge of surviving as an enforcer in this era, and how the Bridgeport coaching staff helps address that:

"With the way the game is progressing, you just can’t be a one-dimensional tough guy anymore," said Gallant, 23. "They know that and they work with you every day.

"They have four or five coaches working with you one-on-one every day, before and after practice. They work on your skating, puck skills and that stuff all the time."

With the amount Isles fans fret about development, it might be encouraging to hear how much individual coaching is available at the AHL level. More importantly though, it's critical that if they have tougher guys helping protect their prized prospects as they develop, that those tough guys also keep an eye on basic hockey skills to at least give the prospects more than one-dimensional weight to play with.

Gallant went on to say how excited he was to play with young prospects who "will get a really good shot at the NHL." Safe to say he knows his role and knows what the stakes are for his assignment.

At the NHL level, Carkner's signing is interpreted as some extra muscle to help: 1) Keep top defenseman Travis Hamonic from having to do things that land him in the box for five or 10 minutes, and 2) Provide a little more protection for the newb and not exactly large blueliners like Aaron Ness, Matt Donovan and Calvin de Haan who will each vie for an NHL job come September.

No accident that the official team write-up on Carkner focused on being "tougher to play against," with Doug Weight being quoted on that need.

This is sort of an irresolvable topic in hockey -- one I hope not to rehash here, but essentially: Teams can intimidate and push the lines as far as officials will let them. Size and repeat physical contact can deter skilled players, while physical response can help deter the overly physical aggressors. (On the flip-side, skilled teams can make offenders pay by cashing in on the powerplays and watching the opponent parade to the box. And the very identity of a "tough" player often evolves from his having to adapt his game when he finds his skill is lacking to reach the next level.)

Every once in a while an overly physical team wins the Stanley Cup -- Anaheim in 2007, Boston in 2011 -- and the copycat cycle turns to toughness as the magical missing ingredient. And regardless of who wins the Cup each year, everyone wants a Milan Lucic; alas, they don't come around much, so teams go through this drill year after year trying to find the right mix of protection without overloading the box or giving up too much by way of skill.

Throughout the system, the Islanders' skill is concentrated mostly in young players while the toughness is predictably concentrated in fringe players. There aren't many combos of toughness and skill in the system that are likely to become NHL regulars. But until such players emerge or until the skilled prospects find their way and take off the training wheels, the Isles are clearly going to pepper each tier of the depth chart with guys who can bang bodies in the name of intimidation and drop the gloves in the name of protection.

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