NY Islanders' new defensive system is already showing results

The defensive structure in the first-half was blatantly flawed.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders
Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

The NY Islanders defense is experiencing its worst season since the Doug Weight-Garth Snow era. In 2017-18, the Islanders finished last in the NHL giving up 296 goals. While it is easy to view this statistic as a negative towards the goaltending, Jaroslav Halak was among the league leaders in saves at 1,583 and save attempts at 1,744, which results in a .908 save percentage. Even with the team having the 2018 Calder Award winner in Mathew Barzal and all-star performances from Josh Bailey and John Tavares, the Isles finished 6th in the Metropolitan Division with just 80 points.

Compare these defensive numbers to the 2023-24 season. The Islanders rank 25th in the NHL giving up 175 goals through 52 games, which averages 3.36 goals allowed per game. Ilya Sorokin leads the league in saves with 1,145 and save attempts with 1,258, resulting in a .910 save percentage. Add Sorokin's statistics with Semyon Varlamov who owns a .912 save percentage and the Isles' goaltending is amongst the NHL's best with a .910 save percentage. On the surface, these statistics should reflect a team that is in a playoff spot at a minimum; the Isles currently rank 4th in the Metropolitan Division and are 4 points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the final wild-card spot.

The similarity between these 2 seasons is the failure to adjust on defense. It's easy to point at the injuries to top defensemen like Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, who have missed 24 games each. We can also bring up the fact only once this season has the regular defensive unit all played together, which was on opening night against the Buffalo Sabres. At the same time, the Barry Trotz-led Islanders had injuries as well and never finished worse than 10th in goals allowed. This leads to the question, what changes can the Islanders' new coaching staff make to better reflect the brilliance of Sorokin and Varlamov?

Patrick Roy is moving away from zone coverage and instituting a 'hybrid structure'.

Since taking over as head coach on January 20th, Patrick Roy has begun instituting a new defensive system to better protect his goaltenders from being shot against 30 or more times per game. Under head coach Lane Lambert, the Isles were playing defense with a 'dice structure', which is essentially when the defenseman sits back near the net and waits for the play to develop. While doing so, the opponent is given more of an opportunity to create their offensive zone pressure and set up an open shot. This has led to the penalty-kill ranking 31st because not enough pressure is being given at the blue line, only when the puck comes towards the net.

Roy has recognized this tactical failure and has begun instituting a 'one-on-two, hybrid structure'. This means the defensemen will stay inside the play and have greater aggression at the blue line. The structure of this type of defense is to keep 3 or 4 players at the top of the zone and just one or two players near the net. This gives the defense an opportunity to set up a 2-on-1 play on whomever on offense has the puck and create a turnover. Ideally, Roy wants his defenseman to 'grab the puck' in the first 4 or 5 seconds rather than wait for the offense to enter the zone.

Furthermore, Roy wants a strong forecheck in the neutral zone to break up offensive rushes. "The purpose of the neutral zone is to make sure we gap up well for them to puck the puck deep, and then we could break out. A neutral zone forecheck needs to flow with the breakout" said Roy in describing this hybrid structure. The purpose of the change in neutral zone structure is to force the opponent to send the puck deep across the blue line, essentially breaking up any offensive zone momentum. In the past, the Islanders' defense was just allowing easy entries with no threat to turn the puck over. Under Roy's new system, he wants the players to go after the puck right from the neutral zone.

So far, the results have been successful in terms of limiting the amount of shots on goal. In Thursday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Isles' defense only allowed 20 shots on goal. In Saturday's matchup against the Calgary Flames, Varlamov only had 22 save attempts. While the new structure is still a work in progress given the 5 goals allowed by Islanders goaltending, a new defensive mindset will take time for the players to become fully accustomed to.