When the 2022-23 season began, New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert jumbled his forward groups often. But very rarely, through the first 19 games, did he change up his defensive pairings. The only change was removing Robin Salo from Scott Mayfield’s side after four games and replacing him with Sebastian Aho.
As expected, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock were a duo, the pair of 22-year-olds in Alexander Romanov and Noah Dobson had been a staple, and as mentioned, Mayfield was a steady force on the bottom pairing, with whoever was his partner.
But after some shaky performances from the defense, most notably against the Nashville Predators in a 5-4 loss (Nov.17) and a 5-2 loss against the Dallas Stars (Nov. 19), Lambert decided to make a few changes ahead of the contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 21.
Here’s how he lined up his defensive corps, which has been the alignment since:
The Islanders have won their last four games, with the defensive changes playing an essential part.
“It’s a small sample size, and things can change, but we just felt like we needed a little bit of a spark on the back end,” Lambert said. “And putting Romanov and Mayfield together, they’re bigger bodies, physical guys, long sticks, so they’ve done a good job, and Sebastian and Noah can really move the puck.”
Mayfield & Romanov Taking Charge
Over these four games, the Alexander Romanov and Scott Mayfield pairing has served as Lambert’s top dogs. They have played the most minutes (64:25) and have been the strongest pair.
The Islanders may have been outshot ever so slightly when they have been on the ice, 28-22, but the two physical defensemen, as a pair, have not been on the ice for a goal against yet, outscoring their opponents 2-0.
“He’s a great defenseman. l like to play with him,” Romanov told NYI Hockey Now. “We just play our game. I play just my game. He play just his game. And when we mix together, you know, we can show something.”
Mayfield enjoys skating with Romanov but shared that he’s comfortable with everyone on the backend.
“You know, no matter who the partner is, we have our system, we have what we’d like to do, so we just try to play to our strengths, and you know, me and him kind of bring that physical aspect together.”
Mayfield has been the Islanders’ best defenseman over this stretch, and some can argue this entire season. Over the last four games, Mayfield has played the second most minutes (72:36) but has been on the ice for the least number of shots and scoring chances against.
Stability from Pelech & Pulock
Throughout the changes to the backend this season, Lambert has kept these two together due to their stability.
They’ve played 56:54 minutes as a pair, and despite the Islanders being outshot 31-20, this pair has also not been on the ice for a goal against, outscoring their opponents 3-0.
While Pelech is fresh off his third goal of the season, as he opened the scoring against Philadelphia Saturday night, Pulock is fresh off a four-assist night.
“I thought he did a really good job of staying up in the play,” Zach Parise said following Saturday’s contest. “Rather than backing off, he was keeping pucks in, he was being more aggressive and proactive, and you get rewarded for it.”
“Even the last couple of games, I feel like he’s been more and more in the rush involved keeping the pucks in and does a lot offensively for us.”
Despite the Islanders being outshot during this stretch, when Pulock has been on the ice, the Islanders have had the most shots on goal with 26.
Aho & Dobson Improving, Still a Work in Progress
They have played the least amount of minutes of any pairing at 47:15. The Islanders have been outshot 34-22, and despite each scoring a goal, this pairing has been on the ice for two goals against.
They have been on the ice for the least number of Islanders scoring chances, at just 16. They have allowed 27 scoring chances, with 12 considered high danger.
Both these defensemen are strong skaters and offensively minded, but both have been subject to mistakes in their own zone.
“I mean, we’re both two pretty mobile defensemen that want to get up there and play the puck,” Aho told NYI Hockey Now. “I think we’ve got a pretty good understanding between each other of how we want to play and all that, and I think we’ve been good.”
Dobson echoed Aho’s sentiments but took accountability for the struggles early on.
“It’s been good. I mean, he skates really well, shoots the puck…He’s got good poise. I thought we’ve done a good job of breaking out,” Dobson said.
“There’s been a couple of communication errors early on, but I thought overall, pretty good.”
The Islanders have scored 14 goals over their last four games, with three coming from defenseman (Dobson, Aho, Pelech). Defensemen have also found the scoresheet via assists seven times, so they have contributed, statistically, to 11 of the 14 goals.
The Islanders have not allowed a goal in the third period on this winning streak, outscoring their opponents 6-0. Mayfield told NYI Hockey Now that he feels they are close to getting back to their shutdown brand of hockey we saw a few years ago, with a few things to clean up.
If the Islanders can reach that type of shutdown style we saw a few years ago, while the offensive continues to average over three goals a game and the goaltending tandem remains toward the top in the NHL, New York will continue to garner points and find themselves in the elite class.
Statistics in this article are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick