With the loss of Johnny Boychuk to a career-ending injury and Devon Toews to Colorado via trade this past offseason, the New York Islanders defense was going to look a bit different this season. Could they be as effective as they were a season ago despite these significant losses?
42 games into this 56-game season, the Islanders’ defense has done more than overcome the losses. They have taken even more steps in the right direction as they have since Barry Trotz took over in 2018.
Since the first day Trotz arrived, he pushed his defensive structure onto his players. His new team responded rather nicely in his first campaign, as they improved from 3.57 goals allowed per game in 2017-18 (worst in NHL that year) to 2.33.
To call it a historic turnaround still feels like it doesn’t hammer home how impressive the feat was.
Last season, in year two of Trotz’s reign, this statistic climbed to 2.79. Despite the sizeable increase, their defense was still good enough for the ninth-best in the NHL. However, when the playoffs rolled around, and the Islanders got their top defenseman, Adam Pelech, back from injury, the dominance returned to the lineup.
In 22 playoff games, the Islanders allowed 2.32 goals per game as they reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first tine since 1993.
This season, the Islanders defense has only allowed 2.31 goals per game, which ranks second in the NHL behind the Vegas Golden Knights. In what some may say is the most challenging division, the Islanders have been able to hover at the top of the East due to their ability to play more competent in their own zone this season.
A year ago, the Islanders averaged 7.43 defensive-zone turnovers per game during the regular season. That number increased in the playoffs to 8.09. This season, that number has been trimmed down to just 4.17 and has helped both goaltenders, veteran Semyon Varlamov and rookie Ilya Sorokin, put together impressive seasons thus far.
The Islanders saw their shots against per game go from 31.2 during the 2019-20 regular season to 29.8 in the playoffs. This season, the amount of shots Islander netminders face on average each game is now down to 27.8. That ranks fourth-fewest in the NHL.
While the strong defensive statistics are due to the entire team’s play, the Islanders have seen improvement amongst their defensemen. For starters, staying healthy had played a significant part. The only health-related issue was the seven games Noah Dobson missed due to COVID-19.
Speaking of Dobson, the second-year defenseman has taken exceptional strides this season. One of the reasons general manager Lou Lamoriello traded Toews was because there was trust that the then 20-year old could handle an everyday role.
With the #Isles trading Devon Toews to Colorado it opens the door for 20-year old Noah Dobson on defense. #Isles president Lou Lamoriello says that's part of the plan. @News12LI @ExIsledUsher @OysterBayBrewin @islessignguy #NHL @Bluelinedeli719 pic.twitter.com/OHWzJzCTrl
— Kevin Maher (@KMaherNews12) October 12, 2020
He has seen his playing time increase to 16:25 this season, a 3:09 minute uptick from his 13:17 he saw last season.
With more time comes more responsibility, and Dobson has been able to handle it. He has turned the puck over 0.44 per game, a significant decrease from his 0.71 a year ago.
He has played alongside the veteran Andy Greene, which has undoubtedly helped given his defensive prowess. Nevertheless, Dobson has been vital in year two. He still has a lot to learn, but the growth is evident across the board.
Nick Leddy, the 11-year vet, has seen his turnovers down from 0.84 to 0.64. Seven-year NHLer Scott Mayfield has been under scrutiny by the fan base this season for his play in his own zone. However, he has seen his numbers improve from 1.04 to 0.69. All three of these defensemen have played more minutes this season than they did in 2019-20.
The improvement in play by these three defensemen to add to the strong play of Pelech, Ryan Pulock, and Greene is why this defense has been a shutdown machine. But there is one statistic that has worsened – icings. Last season the Islanders iced the puck 3.93 times per game but this season that number has risen to 4.86.
Mayfield has been the culprit of some bad icings this season and sits second-worst in the NHL regarding Icing plus/minus(minus-44).
Plus/minus is never a good judgment of a player, but it is worrisome that he has that low of a number. The Islanders have seen an improvement in penalties following icings, as that number has dropped from .048 to .034. The stat that matters the most in this situation is goals off icings. That number has dropped as well from 0.04 to 0.07.
In the final 13 games on the schedule, with the Pittsburgh Penguins so close behind in the standings, the Islanders will need to lock down games in order to garner home-ice advantage come playoff time.
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