When the Islanders’ goals against totals decreased by 100 year-over-year, much of the credit was credited to the goaltenders and coaching staff. Obviously, both parties played tangible role in such a transformation, but overlooked within the narrative lies the Isles’ defense.
There might be a few reasons for that: perhaps it is because they were largely a young group. Or maybe because they are not made up of “household names.” Certainly, a lot of people wrote them off after the team’s disastrous 2017-18 season.
Whatever the reason, it’s past time to start looking at the defense as an area of organizational strength.
Depth Chart and Short Term Outlook
The Top Four
Adam Pelech - Ryan Pulock
Facing the dynamic Pittsburgh Penguins, both Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech had a bit of a coming out party during last year’s playoffs. Making a combined — yes, combined — $3.6 million this year, the Isles are now primed to get supreme value from their top shutdown pairing.
Pulock was a first round pick six(!) years ago who stepped into his own as the Isles’ de facto #1 guy last year, leading the team in ice time (22:22 per game). That ice time was warranted, as Pulock led the Isles in EvolvingWild’s WAR metric (1.8).
Right behind him in that WAR metric was his defense partner through the playoffs, Adam Pelech (1.5). Pelech came into the season as a fairly maligned player who had decent enough “advanced” metrics but not really much else. His game developed to a place where he and Pulock were tasked and trusted to play against Sidney Crosby during a playoff series, which seems… good.
It’s pretty clear that both players come at a bargain this season, which is obviously a huge luxury for the Islanders. But that is only going to be a one-year advantage. Looking ahead, Pulock is entering an arbitration-eligible RFA summer, so another good season means he’d be almost assuredly due for a hefty raise next season. Pelech, however, remains under contract at a very reasonable $1.6 million AAV through the 2021 season. That’s good news for the Islanders, as his contract might become even more valuable as other players around him become richer through their performance.
Devon Toews - Scott Mayfield
So, we have to start with Devon Toews. Bursting (literally) onto the scene around Christmas, Toews played at an objectively high level through the season and playoffs. In terms of expected goals for percentage relative (xGF% Rel) to the team, Toews finished with an 8.53% during the regular season and an even higher 9.36% in a limited eight-game playoff sample. Those numbers are — frankly — ridiculous and create a high bar for his sophomore season.
Anyone who watches Toews can see the talent: speed, vision, positionally sound. That translated into tangible results, which in the context of the salary cap will surely cost the Islanders later. Toews is making $700K this year, but could be due a long, lucrative contract to follow. That’s something GM Lou Lamoriello has had to have kept in mind, as between Toews, Pulock, and Mathew Barzal, the Islanders will have much more cap liability to come as soon as next season.
One of the ways to offset higher priced players near the top of the cap hierarchy is to have valuable players making less than they really deserve. That’s the case of Scott Mayfield, who still has three more years at an extremely affordable $1.45 million AAV through the 2022-23 season. Credit must go to Garth Snow, who signed Mayfield to a five year commitment at the start of calendar year 2018 amid much confusion and concern (especially by yours truly... oops).
Mayfield came into his own last season after an inconsistent start to his career. He set career highs in games played, goals, assists, points, shots on net, and time on ice. And alongside Devon Toews, he was part of the Isles’ most successful defensive pairing of the season. In 521 minutes during the regular season, Toews and Mayfield were outstanding playing to a 57.20% expected goal share and a 58.82% high danger chance share. It’s assumed they will start this season together, giving the Isles’ two valuable, cap efficient top-four pairings.
Nick Leddy, Thomas Hickey, and Johnny Boychuk
The Isles’ young, capable top two pairings will be supplemented by a collection of veterans who have been with the team for a while. Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk are entering their sixth year with the club, while Thomas Hickey is entering his eighth. So, these guys have been around a while. They’re also making a lot more money. To put that in perspective, the Isles’ top two pairings are making a total of $5.75 million AAV combined. Johnny Boychuk has a $6 million AAV along, with Nick Leddy not far behind at $5.5 million.
In isolation, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, it’s simply accepted that older, experienced players will be making more than younger, inexperienced ones. But that does not necessarily mean that contract value equates to production. In this case, it doesn’t.
Both Leddy and Boychuk struggled last season in terms of their isolated impacts (as seen above). And as they get older, their defensive efficacy is unlikely to 1) become better and 2) stay at the level it is currently at. Aging curves are both unbiased and not nice, and that’s especially been the case for Boychuk over the last few years (as he enters his upper 30s). That’s not to say he brings nothing to the table - his intangible presence both on and off the ice have value, but he’s simply not the player he was when he first joined the Isles in 2014-15.
Nick Leddy is a bit more of a curious case, as his toolset is still obvious, but his numbers seem to get worse every year. It’s lazy to simply write that off as “aging,” but it can be assumed that is playing some part, especially when combined with the fact that he’s played over 20 minutes per game in each of the five seasons he’s been on the Island. Of the two, it seems objectively more likely that Leddy’s value could return and that’s likely what the team continually counts on. Ultimately, he’s owed $5.5 million for the next three seasons and there are legitimate questions of if that’s really worth it once the team needs to imminently pay the aforementioned Toews and Pulock.
Thomas Hickey is the least volatile of the bunch in terms of his ability, which makes sense given how stable of a presence he has been over the years. And in terms of his ability, it’s still pretty solid. But like Leddy and Boychuk, there are easy-to-see scenarios where the cap liability outweighs the on-ice performance. For now, he’s a legitimate depth option making a reasonable amount of money, which is something that can’t be disregarded.
Noah Dobson Gets His Own Section
#Isles Barry Trotz on D Noah Dobson, impressive again tonight: (team-best plus-3 in 21:56 with an assist and three shots (eight attempts): "If you watch him, you would never know he was 19 years old. He's an extremely smart, intelligent player."— Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) September 22, 2019
We have to talk about top prospect Noah Dobson. He’s been making noise at camp, which is a welcome sign given his draft and prospect stature. His progression also poses an interesting question for the Isles, who must be focused on ensuring Dobson continues to develop at the rate he’s currently at.
The money here ($894K on a three year ELC) is fairly irrelevant, given how nominal it is relative to the overall cap. As a CHL player, the Isles do have a “nine game trial” option, where they can play Dobson on their NHL roster for up to 9 games before the first year of his entry level deal is burned. That potentially can buy them some time while they look to see if Dobson is truly ready to be in the NHL full time.
That might be an optimal route to go, at least to start. And while sending him back to Rouyn-Noranda would still be the path of least resistance, the 9-game sample presents more of a tangible opportunity in front of Dobson where he could reasonably earn his spot on the roster.
To be clear, Dobson has been good during this pre-season. He has a 2.15 xGF% Rel (expected goals for relative to his teammates), and a 10.00% HDCF% Rel (high danger chances relative) in 68 minutes. But pre-season numbers are just that and serve simply as an exploratory outlet where the team may want to see more.
There are three legitimate options here that have credible, logical reasoning. The Isles can outrightly send Dobson back to Rouyn-Noranda, thus ending his time with the team for the season. That seems like the least likely of the options, but it does qualify as the “easiest.” They could intend to keep Dobson in the NHL all season, which is potentially risky because his performance is unknown as combined with the burned term year. Or they could opt for that nine game trial as mentioned above, which probably is the likeliest option (for now) given how it can somewhat push back the team’s timeline while they get a better sense of how ready Dobson is. Should they go that route, it presents some interesting roster construction questions that require some planning given the involvement of waivers (more on that below).
If there’s one area of the organization where there is top-to-bottom depth, it’s on the defensive end. We’ve already discussed eight players above that are likely candidates to start the season with the team without even discussing what the team has available in Bridgeport and beyond.
(The other) Sebastian Aho did not have the best camp, but he looked like a bona fide NHL player during his stint during the 2017-18 season. He was an AHL All-Star last season and should still be considered one of the team’s top options should injuries hit. Of note, he is an RFA after this season so this is somewhat of a big year for him.
Mason Jobst and Grant Hutton also impressed during their camp stay. Interested to see how they're deployed in BPT.— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) September 25, 2019
Grant Hutton was signed out of Miami (OH) as a college UFA to a one year ELC, but already it seems that he impressed… everyone. He’s a right-hand shot (check) and a sizable 6’3” in height (check), two high-level attractive qualities by any traditional hockey standard. He was assigned to Bridgeport on Wednesday, but it’s possible he may not stay there all season - especially if Noah Dobson heads back to juniors at some point.
Bode Wilde also remains in camp, but is injured and likely will report to Bridgeport when he is healthy. Wilde is a… ugh, sorry… real wild card, as his offensive ability is truly excellent and could be an outside candidate to appear with the Islanders at some point during the season. He was outstanding with Saginaw last season after falling a bit in the draft, showing off the potential that made him a possible first-round pick to begin with. Of all the Isles’ defensive prospects in Bridgeport, he’s the one to watch.
Bridgeport’s roster will also contain the now AHL veteran trio of Mitch Vande Sompel, Parker Wotherspoon, and Kyle Burroughs. Vande Sompel still looks like a promising player, but he injured his arm early in camp and will be out indefinitely. Wotherspoon looks to be developing nicely and if nothing else, presents a viable enough option if the “worst case scenario” hits, which is a nice benefit.
Finally, the team also still has Luca Sbisa with the team on a professional tryout, but there seems to be no real pathway for him to make the team out of camp.
Long Term Outlook
That was a lot to go through, but it’s mostly baked with positives for the Isles. Such a surplus leaves GM Lou Lamiorello with a lot of options beginning with the simple, important priority of determining who will be part of his long-term core. Unlike at the forward and goaltender positions, there is not a lot of long-term liability at this position (only Mayfield is signed through the 2022-23 season).
So, there’s options here. Identifying the core is the first step and once that happens, it creates negotiating leverage across the board. That includes with agents and other teams as the team starts to churn their roster to make the pieces best fit their long-term vision.
It’s possible that happens sooner rather than later should the team decide that Noah Dobson is ready to be in the NHL full-time. That would present a scenario where the Isles basically would have to carry eight defensemen or risk losing a player to waivers. There’s nothing stopping them from keeping all eight guys, but because of all the existing non-waiver exempt forwards it presents a scenario where the team may be in a position where they need to waive a forward they don’t want to. Of course, the team could opt to keep seven defensemen, where if that included Dobson would likely mean Thomas Hickey or Nick Leddy get moved via trade or to Bridgeport by way of waivers. That would be a tough blow given their longstanding relationship with the team, but the unfortunate reality is that the liability tied to their contracts combined with their projected ice time actually could put them more at risk to be moved.
Once the team does sign Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews to their next contracts, there will be a lot more clarity on where the roster will trend in the long-term. Eventually, there will be a dam that breaks that will require some roster churn as some of these younger players ultimately show they are NHL-ready (and there is nothing more valuable than productive ELC players). But there’s still time before that happens en masse, and as such, Lamoriello may be more passive during that short-term timeline.
Basically, that means there could be trades. But there doesn’t have to be. And while it’s impossible to ignore the “talk out of both sides of the mouth” analysis there, it’s true. Lamoriello preaches patience by saying “if you have time, use it.” That line of thinking applies here, as he has shown to be quite cautious when it comes to trades during his 16 months with the club. So, we’ll see - but what we do know is there is a lot of possible maneuvering and flexibility, which generally is a very positive thing.
Short Term Outlook: A-
The top four of the Islanders was legitimately good last year despite their relative anonymity, and there’s no real reason to anticipate anything different this season. What grades them down a peg is some ambiguity towards the bottom of the roster, especially because of some high priced contracts to players that can’t really be counted on.
Noah Dobson has the potential trajectory of transforming the outlook of the defense as soon as this season, but he’s supremely young and not a lock for the roster, so building that into their grade here is tough. Should he take that next step, it’s quite possible the Isles’ defense performs at an even higher level than they did last year (which was strong). If not, the lower half of the roster may create a bit of performance regression, possibly mitigated by utilizing the projected top four more (to the tune of over 40 minutes per game). Even still, the Islanders are eight players deep in terms of NHL efficacy, which is well above many other teams.
So, it’s fair to best characterize this current defensive corps as “very good,” which is miles ahead of what anyone expected as recently as eighteen months ago. That alone can be considered a tangible win.
Long Term Outlook: B+
Nothing’s perfect, including the Islanders’ long-term outlook… but it’s pretty darn favorable.
We’ll start with the negatives. It’s really more like a bundle of one point, which is the liability of owing Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, and Thomas Hickey over $13 million AAV per year through 2021. The good news is that - theoretically - these are not unmovable contracts, which does improve the grade a little bit. But even still, these are big contracts paid to players whose best years are likely behind them. And while two of these contracts predate Lamoriello and cannot reasonably be put on him, it’s still something he is now tasked with managing as a matter of organizational health.
That said, there are some serious positives. Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield are making approximately $3 million *combined* for the next three seasons. Devon Toews and Ryan Pulock have big contracts coming to them but are also likely to be the Isles’ most productive defensemen over the next few years. And while we can’t grade out on contracts not afforded, we can at least make the point that it is likely the Isles will (almost positively) be using cap dollars on actively productive players. That alone is a good thing.
Finally, the prospect depth here is quite strong starting with Noah Dobson and moving all the way through the bottom pairings of Bridgeport. That surely means a lot of internal competition for playing time, but it also means a lot of entry level contracts. These are going to be hugely important for New York as the team goes through a bit of a shift in cap hierarchy over the next few seasons.
The bottom line is the identity of this defense meshes precisely with the vision that Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz have outlined. There are quality young assets in the fold that will balance out some of the larger cap issues the team has. And because their long-term liability is mostly limited, there’s no other way to look at this as a uniquely positioned time for the Isles as they enter Year 2 of the Lamoriello/Trotz regime.