One of the glaring weaknesses that lead to the New York Islanders downfall this season was the poor play of the defense. We have seen in previous years that if you want to go far in the NHL playoffs you have to have a good defense. Two recent examples of this are the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins. If the Islanders want to contend next season, the back-end has to undergo a huge makeover. The Islanders defense didn’t get much help from goaltenders Evgeni Nabokov, Anders Nilsson, and Kevin Poulin but still, the unit’s play was poor. Here are my thoughts on the defense going forward.
Travis Hamonic: The Islanders made a key re-signing in the offseason by striking a 7-year, $22 million dollar deal with Travis Hamonic. Hamonic has been one of the Islanders most consistent defenseman over the past 3 seasons and many think the Islanders signed him to a reasonable contract. Although Hamonic did not look the same after he suffered a concussion mid-season, he picked up his game down the stretch and proved that he had worked his way back to top form. With the contract he received and his solid play, Hamonic will be a definite lock to return and will most certainly be on the top defensive pairing.
Calvin de Haan: de Haan was a pleasant surprise for the Islanders this season after being called up from the Islanders minor league team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He showed confidence and poise throughout the year and was excellent in the defensive zone. One very impressive stat about de Hann is that he averaged 21:10 of total ice time, which was good for 4th on the team. This is a ton of minutes for a guy who was thrown into the fire as a rookie defenseman. No doubt de Hann will be back next year and be in a top four role.
Thomas Hickey: Arguably the most under-rated player on the roster, Thomas Hickey had a solid year for the Islanders. Although Hickey may turn the puck over too much, two stats of his really stand out. First, Hickey had the highest plus/minus rating on the team with a +5. He was one of only two Islanders to have a plus rating while playing in more than 65 games. The other Islander was Travis Hamonic (mentioned above) who in 69 games was a +2. The other stat that stands out about Hickey is that he played in all 82 games this year. The Islanders were riddled with injuries so for Hickey to play in 82 games, and have the plus-minus rating he had is very impressive. Still only 25 years old and under contract for next season, there is no reason why Hickey shouldn’t be on the roster next year.
Matt Carkner: Carkner is one of the more likable players in the Islanders locker room and with a year left on his contract, he should be back in a similar role.
Lubomir Visnovksy: Visnovsky was a reliable power-play quarterback during the playoff stretch a year ago, but unfortunately missed 58 games due to concussion this year. He also has had 6 concussions in his career. Visnovsky is entering the last year of his contract, but could the Islander really rely on him to be healthy? It may be in the best interest for the Islanders to buy him out due to his shaky health. He has also stated that he is contemplating retirement.
Brian Strait: Strait, who has also dealt with injuries, may not have a spot with the team due to the young talent coming up from the minors. He may fall out of the mix unless he has a very impressive training camp.
Kevin Czuczman: Czuczman was signed by the Islanders to a two-year contract late in the season. He was solid in his first 13 games, but may start the season in the minors so he can work on his game and get more playing time which will help his development.
Brooks Orpik: Many Islanders fans have a bitter feeling toward Orpik, due to the fact he ended the their season last year with a game-winning goal in game 6 of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The 33 year-old Penguin defenseman is a tough and physical presence who would bring leadership and playoff experience to a young team.
Marek Zidlicky: Zidlicky is a guy the Islanders take a look at this offseason. Zidlicky, 37, quarterbacked the Devils power play which finished 9th in the NHL, compared to the Islanders who were 17th. If the Islanders part with Visnovksy, Zidlicky would be an option.
Dustin Byfuglien: If the Islanders want to go the trade route, Byfuglien may be an option. The 6 foot 5 inch defenseman was the subject of some trade rumors prior to the trade deadline, so the Islanders might come calling on draft day. Still only 29, Byfuglien finished the year with 56 points.
If the Islanders don’t want to find themselves at the bottom of the standings, signing a couple of veteran defenseman would help. With the possibility of the 4th overall pick in 2012, Griffin Reinhart coming up next season, and 2013 1st round pick Ryan Pulock a year or two away, a veteran defenseman would help mentor these young players. If the Islanders have a top-six of Calvin de Haan, Griffin Reinhart, Brooks Orpik, Thomas Hickey, Travis Hamonic, and either Visnovsky or Zidlicky, the team should be much improved on the backline.