Heading into training camp, the New York Islanders defense would seem to be the weak link on a team that has improved greatly this offseason. The goaltending is obviously much improved from last season, and quite frankly it couldn’t have gotten much worse. The additions of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin will also make an offense that was solid last season that much better. In short, the Islanders have the potential to be a very good team this upcoming season, but the only thing that may hold them back is their defense.
It’s no secret: last year the Islanders defense stunk. Plain and simple it just wasn’t good enough. The lack of NHL caliber goaltending certainly didn’t make the defense look any better but still that unit needs to be better. The Isles blue line is very young and has a lot of potential, but this season we will need to see potential turned into talent and NHL ability. Without a trade for a top four defenseman being made before the start of camp(which certainly could happen), I see the Islanders defense shaping up as follows: four locks and as many as seven guys competing for 3 spots.
First, let’s take a look at the guys who would figure to be locks in the lineup on opening night:
Pairing 1: Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan
I don’t think anyone can argue with me: at this point in time these two young blueliners are the best on the Islanders. When these two were paired together in December of last season, you could immediately see how well they complimented each other. If you remember, early last season Hamonic struggled while paired with Andrew Macdonald, much of which wasn’t his fault. But when paired with de Haan, Hammers game elevated and the Isles rookie also seemed quite comfortable. Hamonic would like to have a bounce back year after a campaign in which he wasn’t as good as he wants to and can be. If Hamonic heads into camp determined and de Haan can stay healthy and continues his rapid growth, this pair will be a rock for the Islanders to lean on all season.
Pairing 2: Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey
Visnovsky and Hickey have proven that they are very effective when paired with one another, the only problem was we didn’t get to see much of that pair last season. When both Hickey and Visnovsky came over to New York in the lockout shortened 2013 season, they proved late in the regular season and in the playoffs that they were a dynamic pair. The two were paired together last season but Lubo just couldn’t stayed healthy. Hickey had what some would qualify as a breakout season last year. The former fourth overall pick proved that he can be an every day NHL defenseman, as he was the only plus player on an Islanders team that was brutal in that category. We know that Viz is healthy heading into the season, but the question remains how long will he stay healthy? You can only hope that Visnovsky can avoid the concussion problems that kept him off the ice for much of last season, because if he can this will be a very good pair for the Isles.
Now onto the part where things get very tricky and crowded. It seems that at this point there are seven defensemen all vying for three spots on this years team. The list includes veterans, young players and maybe even a traffic cone here or there!
1) Matt Donovan– Donovan is a very interesting candidate for a spot on this team. The 24 year old blueliner is very gifted offensively, but occasionally struggles with the defensive aspect of his game. It seemed as if Donovan was given the short end of the stick last year, as for much of the latter part of the season he was paired with Matt Carkner- a punishment which no young defenseman should have to endure. Donovan looked great when paired with Calvin de Haan and that, to me showed what he can do with an NHL caliber defenseman. Overall I like Donovan’s game and think he has a very realistic shot at making the team.
2) TJ Brennan– Many Islander fans haven gotten much of a chance to see Brennan play all that much. Brennan is an offensively minded defenseman, very similar to Matt Donovan. The reigning AHL defenseman of the year has clearly found success at the minor league level, but not yet at the professional level. Brennan posted 72 points in 76 games last season for the Toronto Marlies, which is obviously quite impressive. But just like Donovan, Brennan’s defensive game can be a bit suspect at times. I think it’ll come down to Matt Donovan and TJ Brennan battling it out for one spot on the team in camp.
3) Griffin Reinhart– All indications from Islanders head coach Jack Capuano are that this is Griffin Reinhart’s spot to lose come training camp. The captain of the Edmonton Oil Kings had great success this season, leading his team to a Memorial Cup Championship while being their top defenseman. This experience will prove to be invaluable for Reinhart as he continues his development. Reinhart provides something that is missing from the Isles defense- size and physicality, but at the same time skating ability and skill. A spot on the third pairing is Reinhart’s to lose, all he has to do is come to camp ready to battle.
“Reinhart provides something that is missing from the Isles defense-size and physicality, but at the same time skating ability and skill.”
4) Kevin Czuczman– After being picked up out of Lake Superior State last season, the 23 year old defenseman played very well in his 13 games with the big club. Czuczman was a late bloomer as a hockey player and was undrafted because of this. He posseses size and is pretty solid defensively, which obviously this Islanders defense could use. Although he was pretty good last season, I do not think Czuczman has enough to make the big club and will benefit greatly from spending a full year in Bridgeport.
5) Matt Carkner– When you have this many skilled defensemen vying for a few spots, Carkner shouldn’t even be in the conversation. I’ll admit it, I have a soft spot for Carkner and think he is a great guy, but while dressed in two skates you can most easily equate his game to a traffic cone with a stick taped to the side. There’s no need to keep guys like this on your hockey team in the year 2014 and if you disagree with me find a goon on the defending Stanley Cup Champions roster.
6) Scott Mayfield– Mayfield is a very large,physical presence on the ice and is very defensive minded. He won’t do anything too flashy for you, but he is certainly solid defensively. Last year in his brief five game stay with the big club Mayfield certainly held his own. I think Mayfield, like Czuczman could use a year of seasoning and development in the AHL but if someone were to go down, he would be one of the first called to Long Island.
7) Brian Strait– Last year, Strait, like Visnovsky just couldn’t stay healthy. Strait played just 47 games for the Isles last year and in those games he wasn’t all that bad. Strait plays a fairly solid defensive game but doesn’t have all that much offensive upside. Strait is one of the veterans in this young Isles defensive corps, as surprising as that may seem. I think you’ll see Brain Strait on Long Island this year, but his role won’t be as significant as it has the past two seasons.
So now that I’ve laid it all out for you, your question probably is: “so who makes the team?” This upcoming season I think you’ll see T.J. Brennan, Brian Strait and Griffin Reinhart start the season on Long Island. Like I said, the fifth defensive spot is Griffin Reinhart’s to lose and I think he’ll come to camp ready to grab that. The sixth spot will go to Brennan, as he’ll beat our Donovan. I also think Brian Strait will grab the last spot. There is no point in keeping Mayfield and Czuczman around to ride the pine every night, and I think you’ve all gotten my thoughts on Matt Carkner. Overall this high level of competition will be beneficial for everyone involved and it will be very intriguing to watch this play out in training camp.