As many longtime readers know, through an accident of birth or poor parenting I follow two NHL teams closely. One side effect of this -- in addition to doubling my soul-crushing spiral into misery each spring -- is that I end up studying similarities and contrasts in how the teams are constructed, run, and aim for their own brand of "way we need to play."
So some salient notes from an stltoday chat with St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong brought to mind a couple of oft-raised topics about the New York Islanders offseason. They reflect the direction the game has been going, I believe, and pose some more fodder for discussion.
On depth, numbers problems, and good forwards having to be in the AHL
Armstrong was asked about two young players who might not regain their NHL jobs this season -- the highly regarded Dmitrij Jaskin who had a late-season callup, and the struggling Magnus Paajarvi, who spent all season with the team. Armstrong's response:
Both will be given the opportunity to compete for the opening-night roster, but the addition of Lehtera, Stastny has made that competition stronger. A successful organization starts with internal competition and we have that.
This is a mantra we hear all the time, but it's one the Islanders finally appear to be seeing come to the forefront after this summer's moves intersected with the anticipated graduation of several promising young forwards in Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome and possibly Anders Lee. As many have noted, the Isles have more one-way contracts at forward than a team would typically carry, so something's got to give.
That could be a heralded prospect spending time in Bridgeport, or a valued "character" grinder (or more?) getting cut, or the team attempting to assemble multiple parts in a package trade.
We'll see. The important thing is they have some competition now, and that competition could lead to an upgrade elsewhere or the use of more talent in the bottom six.
On defense, size, and toughness
A reader asked Armstrong about the trade of the tough-as-nails Roman Polak for the smoother skating/passing Carl Gunnarsson.
I was a big Polak fan for what he could do and how he did it, but I'm also well aware of his limits and the likelihood his time as a useful top-line matcher has already crested. The trade itself was well-founded from the Blues' angle, even without getting to the whole "but now we're not tough enough!" angle:
Q: A lot of people think the Polak move weakened the Blues too much in terms of physicality. Do you feel that's a glaring weakness?
Armstrong: No. I believe the game played now with transition. We think that having a puck-moving defense will add to our offense and allow our skill players the opportunity to produce. Physical defense can be shown in many different ways. What we have are smart-defending players with positional and stick play and can hold their own physically. I think Polak's departure creates an outstanding opportunity for Ian Cole, who has the physical assets to do what Roman has done for us in the past. We understand what Roman brought to our team and thank him for his time, but you have to give up something of value to get something of value.
Even the most puck-focused, analytics-obsessed observer would not completely dismiss the value of physical play on the blueline: In its most basic form, it's the ability to win a battle for position in front of the net or in the corners to regain possession and/or prevent a scoring chance.
But that general truth doesn't make it easy to quantify nor compare among stereotypically "tough" defenders. And really, it needs to be done by players who also have other skills, not by Brooks Orpik.
I bring this up because a common concern about the Islanders blueline is this (lack of) physical element with reliance on possession-friendly puck movers like Calvin de Haan, Lubomir Visnovsky, Thomas Hickey and possibly Matt Donovan and TJ Brennan. For me the bigger concern is the durability issue: Relying on de Haan and Visnovsky carries its own risk given their injury history, and you could add to your concern Travis Hamonic's concussion.
But overall, injuries are a fact of life for NHLers in general and defensemen in particular. It's a brutal position, with a obligation to engage with incoming bodies, pucks, sticks and sometimes even your own teammate. Since they are inevitable, it's good to have depth and backup with players who can handle the puck, not just players who have "been there."
This isn't just 'new age' thinking
Armstrong is by no means a pure stats- or "Corsi love!" type of GM. He talks of "grit" (see: Steve Ott signing) and all your traditional hockey attributes and cliches. His coach talks of being "hard on the puck" and the importance of checking and intimidation and the like.
But he also leads one of the league's top teams in the league's most vicious and competitive conference, where the two teams that have won four of the past five Stanley Cups -- to say nothing of other impressive also-rans in the conference -- exhibit an emphasis on puck transition and possession while also attending to the needs of physicality and intimidation that this sport is known for.
To repeat one of Armstrong's lines:
I believe the game played now with transition. We think that having a puck-moving defense will add to our offense and allow our skill players the opportunity to produce. Physical defense can be shown in many different ways. What we have are smart-defending players with positional and stick play and can hold their own physically.
The Islanders have traditional physicality (plus real talent) with Hamonic, and they have the above "smart" attributes with the rest of their top four. If Griffin Reinhart makes the jump soon, he should be a very nice balance of that smart positional and stick play without suffering when the puck's on his stick.
I am perhaps in the minority in thinking the Isles don't "desperately" need to upgrade their proverbial top four*.
*By the way, that term gets thrown around a lot, but in reality there is a big difference between a #1 defenseman and the complementary (#4) guy on the second pair. This professed need probably comes from the reality the Isles don't have a traditional #1 defenseman...but then those are the hardest to acquire.
Could they use an upgrade? Of course! Upgrades are always and infinitely welcome. Judging by their collection of contracts and the run they took at Dan Boyle, the Isles share this desire.
But if they beat the odds and are somehow able to wrest one free via the trade market, I'll bet the farm that the target will be known more for his transition play and smarts than his physicality.