This is why last night was perfect: in the Islanders’ only national TV game of the season, the player who scored the overtime winner was the player most deserving of having his name introduced to the wider NHL audience.
Devon Toews is that player and he has been outstanding in his first five NHL games.
The 24-year-old rookie defenseman has been waiting a long time for his NHL opportunity. He would’ve been called up last year but suffered a season-ending injury just days before the Islanders tapped Bridgeport for a defenseman.
He should’ve then made the Islanders out of training camp this season, having very clearly been one of the team’s best defenseman during the preseason. Barry Trotz said as much in his postgame press conference last night. But because he didn’t require waivers to be sent down to AHL Bridgeport, he was sent down to AHL Bridgeport. (The company line is they wanted to be cautious because of his injury, just make sure you wink when you say it.)
At long last, Toews finally got the call a few weeks ago when Thomas Hickey went down with an injury. He was inserted into the lineup on Dec. 23 in Dallas.
The Islanders have won all five games in which Toews has played by a cumulative score of 19-7. Toews has played a pivotal role in these wins, culminating in his OT winner last night:
I recommend you toggle the HD option on for all of these clips.
Today, I’m going to show you what I find so impressive about Toews’ game. Please just know I had this post written yesterday, well before last night’s game. So this is not an overreaction to Toews scoring the OT winner last night. Rather, it is an overreaction to Toews’ first four NHL games before last night.
Though it might not be an overreaction at all. If it turns out that this is exactly who Devon Toews is as a player, then Devon Toews might very well be this team’s best defenseman. On that, we’ll have to see. For now, here’s my breakdown.
In the five games since Toews was inserted into the lineup, he leads all Islanders defensemen with a 59% on-ice shot differential, 65% scoring chance differential and 72% high-danger scoring chance differential. Despite starting the vast majority of his shifts outside the offensive zone, he has helped move play in the right direction with his speed, skill and hockey IQ.
His only point so far was the overtime goal from last night. Considering his pedigree and skill set, though, increased offensive production is inevitable from this player.
Now, let’s look at some clips of Toews to see why he has put up these ridiculously good stats.
1. Defensive Zone Play
What most impresses me with Toews’ defensive play is his hockey IQ. He reads the play extremely well because he stays aware of everything happening around him. His head is constantly on a swivel, more than any defenseman on the team. He seems prepared for whatever situation that may arise, and he plays with a poise and composure of a player who’s been in the league for five years, not five games.
He’s also got a very quick defensive stick which he has used several times to take the puck away or clear it out of danger.
To me, it looks like Toews is consistently a step ahead of everyone around him. Here are some of the defensive plays Toews has made:
2. Transition: Turning Defense into Offense
Because Toews reads the play so well, he gets to spots early and thwarts opposing attacks prematurely. He’s got good gap control and likes to steal the puck by using his stick or jumping into passing lanes. He is then capable of advancing the puck up ice with an outlet pass or by carrying it himself.
That 59% shot-share number is unsustainable for a full season and partially the product of a tiny, five-game sample size. But he has played a primary role in bringing that number about. It’s not like he’s just been standing on the ice while others do the heavy lifting.
Toews has prevented shots and scoring chances against the Islanders by playing great defense and he has helped generate shots and scoring chances for the Islanders by transitioning the puck beautifully. Check out these clips.
3. Carrying the Puck
It’s one thing to think the game at a high level and read what’s going on around you. But defense is about reading and reacting. So if you aren’t physically capable of reacting to what’s going on around you, well then you really ain’t shit, are you?
Toews is capable. He’s athletic, he’s skilled and he’s fast. There’s a reason he won the fastest skater competition at the 2017 AHL All Star Game: because he’s a very fast skater. He covers ground easily and effortlessly and he can carry the puck up ice at a high level. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this kind of ability.
I don’t think it’ll be too long before we see Toews running the point on the top power play unit. He thrived in that role in Bridgeport and it’s only a matter of time before he does so with the Islanders.
So that’s what I got so far on our new (and improved) no. 25.
Devon Toews is quite obviously one of the more capable defensemen on this team. His high level of play these last five games should have completely eliminated the possibility of him getting sent back down to Bridgeport when Hickey returns.
We are at the halfway point of the regular season and the Islanders are in legitimate contention for a playoff spot. The fanbase is excited and the team is playing inspired hockey. There is absolutely no excuse for Devon Toews sniffing the AHL ever again.
There are sure to be growing pains to come, especially once his role inevitably increases. But this player who scored the game-winning goal on national TV last night is the real deal.
His name is Devon Toews and he has arrived.