It’s no secret that a shaky defense corps was one of the main reasons for a disappointing 2013-14 NHL season for the New York Islanders, but where did it truly rank, and where does it stand ahead of next season?
What would have been the impact of a healthy Lubomir Visnovsky? How did Andrew MacDonald’s departure affect the team? Is Calvin de Haan ready to make the leap? Was failing to sign Dan Boyle as big of a blunder as the mainstream media would have us believe? When will the much-talked-about defensive prospects finally be ready to join the big club?
These are just a few of the many questions we’ll explore as we take a closer look at the Islanders’ blue line in this post.
Aiding me in my analysis is Rob Vollman of Hockey Abstract, who will use his knowledge of hockey analytics to complement my own perspective. (You’ll remember him from my post on his Isles player usage chart.) Rob has often claimed that his brand of analytics is best used in close concert with traditional analysis (as opposed to replacing it entirely), so let’s put that to the test here.
We’ve selected five questions related to the Islanders blue line with the aim of seeing where our unique perspectives—one sentimental (for lack of a better term), and one analytical—match up. We’d love to read your view in the comments section as well, so feel free to chime in. If this project works out, we’ll take a look at other aspects of the team throughout the summer.
So, without further ado…
1. How would one rank the Islanders’ defensemen last year among all 30 NHL teams?
Mike’s take: In comparison to the rest of the league, I’d say the blue line ranked below average (20-25 range). I think most of their deficiencies were exacerbated by injuries (Strait, Visnovsky) and a lack of veteran presence. The team was forced to rely on kids (de Haan, Donovan, Hickey) for much of the year, which meant a lot of them were learning on the fly. (Not exactly what management had planned, but you can’t account for injuries to key blueliners.) Toward the end of the season, the team basically threw in the towel and allowed the rookies to play big minutes, going with Kevin Czuczman and Scott Mayfield at times in an effort to prepare the kids for camp in the fall.
Rob’s take: The Islanders put a great deal of effort into upgrading their forward depth last summer, and I was puzzled why they chose to begin the season taking such risks in net and on the blue line. I figured that better defenseman (and goalies) were just too difficult to acquire, leaving a lot of teams around the league to take giant risks like this—the Islanders were hardly alone here. This also gave me all the more respect for teams like Carolina who managed substantial improvements. Unfortunately for the Islanders, they essentially experienced the worst case scenarios on defense and in goal. Although their blue line ranked toward the bottom of the league overall, it wasn’t necessarily destined to be that way. Still, it wasn’t a playoff-caliber blue line no matter the excuses (injuries, inexperience, etc.).
2. Was Andrew MacDonald playing over his head? Where on the depth chart does he really belong?
MW: MacDonald—before the trade with the Philadelphia Flyers—was playing the most minutes on the team, and it wasn’t close. While some might see that as an indication he was the all-around most important defenseman, he was definitely in over his head. On an Islanders team decimated by injuries and reliant on rookies, MacDonald was forced to step up and shoulder a heavy load defensively. On a top-5 or even a top-10 team, he’d be a third-pair D-man; those third-pair minutes would make the best use of his ability in his own zone. On Long Island, he was manning the point on the power play since Visnovsky was out with a concussion, which MacDonald never really looked comfortable doing. All in all, he was pressed into service in a role that the situation dictated. If the coaching staff had its choice, Jack Capuano and Doug Weight likely never would have had him matched up against the other teams’ top forwards or running the power play.
RV: MacDonald had been tackling New York’s top minutes for most of four seasons, killing penalties and playing against the top lines at even strength, often in the defensive zone. His results were actually pretty respectable for the first couple of seasons but have been alarmingly bad since the 2012 lockout. Analytically speaking, this team got badly outplayed when he was on the ice, at a rate even worse than his difficult playing conditions would normally allow. The Flyers are taking quite a risk in signing MacDonald to a $5 million cap hit for each of the next six seasons, but that’s what a tight defenseman market will do: force teams to take risks and ultimately overpay.
3. Calvin de Haan: the real deal? Is he ready to be a top-pair defenseman?
MW: Calvin de Haan is definitely the real deal. The team traded up to draft him at No. 12 in 2009 (John Tavares’s draft class) with the intention of making him the power play quarterback and top-pair defenseman of the future. Unfortunately, successive shoulder injuries slowed his progress in the AHL, but as you’ve probably noticed from your player tracking, de Haan’s offensive game is pretty solid. He never looked out of place in the NHL last year, and he’ll take another big step forward next season. Ideally, the Islanders see him and Griffin Reinhart as the top pair (possibly next season, but likely in 2015-16). I don’t see any reason why de Haan couldn’t play on the top pair next year, unless Visnovsky comes back 100 percent healthy and the coaching staff feels de Haan could use one more full year as a second-pairing guy before handing him the responsibility of playing top-pair minutes. (Obviously, all of this is dependent on GM Garth Snow possibly bringing in a veteran D-man this offseason, which could change the depth chart significantly.)
RV: Yes, analytically all the signs are pointing in the right direction for de Haan. The rookie D-man ranked second on the Islanders’ blue line in terms of quality of competition, and the percentage of his shifts that began in the defensive zone was the highest among the team’s defensemen. That’s a lot of confidence to place in a 22-year-old rookie, and his results did not disappoint. In fact, the team enjoyed one of its largest shot-based advantages when he was out there, which can’t just be a coincidence. (MW: EYE-TEST-MATCHING-THE-FANCY-STATS ALERT! ) I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him form an effective top pairing during the 2014-15 season with incumbent top-pair D-man Travis Hamonic, though the safer prediction is one more year of de Haan as a solid top-four defender before he makes the leap.
4. Lubomir Visnovsky’s absence: how many points in the standings do you think it cost the team?
MW: Visnovsky’s absence really hurt the team, and I think it ultimately cost the Isles four or five wins outright (8-10 points in the standings). The team wasted many of their power play opportunities without a true quarterback to run the point, which meant they left “easy” goals on the table. The Islanders weren’t blown out too many times last season, meaning those lost power play opportunities were huge. Visnovsky isn’t a real physical guy, but if he was in the lineup, the rest of the depth chart shifts one spot accordingly, and guys like Matt Carkner aren’t on the ice as much. (Sorry Matt.) I’d say that the loss of Visnovsky was the biggest factor—besides their lack of solid goaltending—that contributed to the Islanders’ poor showing this past season.
RV: We’re on opposite sides, here. I think Visnovsky’s value has been greatly exaggerated and his true worth could be as low as three goals and only one point in the standings. This cynical view is a consequence of having a more modest opinion of Visnovsky as a player, and of my perception of the true impact a non all-star can have on a team’s position in the standings. While his loss was clearly felt on the power play, his even-strength scoring rate has been 0.6 for two seasons now, which is really as low as is possible. And that’s despite the advantage of consistently starting about 55% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which is just about as high as it gets (especially for the Islanders). Furthermore, those numbers are generally against secondary lines, and he has ranked top-four in quality of competition on his team’s blue line only once in the past six seasons. He does have phenomenal possession stats, though, and perhaps they ought to try relying on him more against top opposing lines. Defensively, he hasn’t averaged a minute of penalty killing time per game as far back as I can remember.
5. What do the Isles need to get on the blue line this summer (if anything)?
MW: I think the Islanders are set on the blue line for the time being. (I know that goes against a lot of what I’ve said above about the team’s defense corps being the weak link, but hear me out.) With Jesse Graham, Ville Pokka, Ryan Pulock and Reinhart all on the way—Reinhart this year, everyone else in a couple years—there’s a logjam at defenseman within the organization. If anything, the team could have used Dan Boyle to lend a veteran presence and run the power play, which is exactly why GM Garth Snow went after him. I think the team’s biggest focus this summer is a top winger to play with Tavares, then Snow can look for a good backup goalie (assuming a deal with Evgeni Nabokov can’t be reached), and then seek out a depth blueliner.
RV: The Islanders could probably use one more top-four defenseman on a temporary basis, but that’s far easier said than done. The escalated prices of the free agent market make that a big gamble, and the cost of acquiring defensemen via trade can be just as steep. While adding Boyle top the mix wouldn’t necessarily have done any harm, I don’t think that would’ve been the right move. In terms of free agents, a great signing would be Mark Fayne, but he’s unlikely to come cheap. More affordable options to explore could include Tom Gilbert, Ron Hainsey, and Brett Bellemore. If the Islanders were to make a trade, their first call should be to the San Jose Sharks to inquire about Justin Braun, and then to the Minnesota Wild to ask about Jared Spurgeon or Marco Scandella. Finally, a call to the Boston Bruins to ask about Johnny Boychuk wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
And there you have it; that’s our quick take on the Islanders blue line. With the exception of Visnovsky’s true value to the club, there seems to be a close consensus between the “traditional” and “analytical” views when it comes to assessing the play of the team’s defensemen. Remember: give us your thoughts on the Islanders’ defense in the comments section below, and if there’s interest in this type of breakdown, we’ll do it again later this summer and focus on a different aspect of the team.
Follow us on Twitter. We promise not to be this wordy. (Mostly because 140 characters.)