Coming into the 2022-23 season, we knew the strength of the NY Islanders was going to be goaltending with what many labels the best tandem in the NHL between Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov. After the goaltending, pretty much everything was in question after general manager Lou Lamoriello neglected to upgrade the forward group and only brought in Alexander Romanov (among a few smaller signings) to add to the current roster. Add that to a new head coach, Lane Lambert, who vowed to bring a new style of play to the Islanders (and has delivered on that promise), and many of us didn't know what to expect. Further, as the season has progressed the Islanders' blue line has been through some ebbs and flows, but for the most part, it's been solid by committee. Part of that committee has been Scott Mayfield and Sebastian Aho who, to this date, are the best defensive duo in the NHL in expected goals against compared to their deployment.
Over the summer, the Islanders signed Aho to a two-year, $1.65 million contract with an AAV of $825K. At the time, it was a puzzling decision as the defenseman had yet to establish himself as a regular NHLer that could provide lineup consistency. The assumption in September heading into October was that the vacant spot next to Mayfield on the blue line was going to be claimed by Robin Salo. Salo's transition from the SHL to the AHL has been pretty good, but he has yet to figure it out at the NHL level.
Enter Aho who has been in and out of the Islanders lineup for the last three-plus seasons and the 61 NHL games he's played prior to this season are seemingly paying off. Lambert's new system that relies way less on defending in the Islanders' own zone and more on moving the puck in transition to the opposite end of the ice is working in Aho's favor a lot more than the way he needed to play in seasons prior.
Add contract year Mayfield to Aho's right and the Islanders have a defensive duo motivated to either make sure they stay in the lineup or earn themselves some security this summer with a shiny new contract. The result? According to MoneyPuck, the duo of Aho and Mayfield lead the NHL in xGA/60 among defensive pairs that have played at least 200 minutes with each other.
In simple terms, Aho and Mayfield are allowing the least amount of goals in the NHL when they're on the ice compared to their time on ice. For context, the duo of Jacob Slavin and Brent Burns ranks seventh on the list, and how about Devon Toews and reigning Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar ranked 10th? Aho and Mayfield are in some elite company.
When the duo is on the ice together, Lambert is receiving some high-quality defending, and believe it or not, both Aho and Mayfield (who has an underrated skating ability) can transition the puck from their own end of the ice to the offensive end smoothly.
It speaks volumes to how well Aho has developed and how reliable Mayfield has become with an Islander blue line that also consists of Romanov, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, and Noah Dobson. Coming into the season, there sure was question as to whether or not the Islanders' blue line could stabilize itself in a more modern system and the emergence of Aho and the reliability of Mayfield are paying dividends.