Isles still believe ‘D’ is the key to victory
Trotz looks to maintain defensive style after roster changes
The New York Islanders lost key defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Devon Toews during their brief offseason.
One thing they refuse to lose, however, is their committment to defense.
“The teams that are good defensively are the teams that lasted,” Isles head coach Barry Trotz noted this week as his squad continued to prepare for next Wednesday night’s season opener against the arch rival New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
“The teams that went to the final four last year were all probably in the top-five of defensive teams,” Trotz added.
Trotz’s unit finished fifth overall in team defense a season ago as New York reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993 and flirted with its first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1984.
In 2018-19, Trotz’s first season at the helm in Downtown Brooklyn, the Isles ranked first overall, allowing the least goals in the NHL just one year after yielding the most, a reversal in defensive fortunes that hadn’t been seen in the league in over a century.
But not having Boychuk, a veteran blueliner who retired due to a severe eye injury suffered here at Barclays Center on March 3, and Toews, who was traded to Colorado, could cause problems for a unit that thrived in the postseason last summer at the NHL bubble sites in Toronto and Edmonton.
“It’ll be different right off the bat,” admitted Nick Leddy, Boychuk’s long-time defensive partner in both Boston and New York.
“But with our team and injuries throughout the season, we’ve all played with just about everyone. It’s nothing that we all haven’t dealt with before, especially me. The biggest thing is just communicating and talking it out, whether you’re on the ice, after a shift or in between periods.”
For now, Trotz indicated that he looking to pair Leddy with Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech alongside Ryan Pulock and Andy Greene beside young defenseman Noah Dobson.
That trio of pairings will have to learn to play together fast and show instant results in the NHL’s condensed 56-game regular season as the Isles try to go at least one step further than last year’s stirring playoff run.
“I don’t know what the plan is going forward as far as partners, playing time and all of that,” said Mayfield, who had 13 points in 67 games in the COVID-interrupted 2019-20 campaign.
“But as far as [Leddy] and [Toews] go, they’re pretty similar players. I know my job. I know what I need to do; be in the corners, be physical and be good in front. Both of them, they’re good skaters. If there are two similar players, I’d say they’re probably the most likely.”
Pelech will get to play with the Isles’ most offensive defenseman in Pulock, who led the team’s blueliners with 10 goals and 25 assists a season ago.
“I’m extremely confident in our group,” he said. “I think everyone back there feels the same way. Losing guys like [Toews] and [Boychuk] is going to be tough, but when you lose guys like that, everyone has to step up.
“[Dobson] is going to play a bigger role this year,” Pelech emphasized. “We’re all confident and excited for him to see how his game grows. We all know how good of a player he can be. For all of the other guys, we all need to step up to fill the void that those two guys left.”
The Isles’ first-round pick in 2018, Dobson cut his teeth in the league last season, managing his first career goal to go with six assists in 34 games.
Though the prized prospect is already installed as a favorite to be among the Isles top six defenseman, Trotz indicated that younger players still in the system and a few that have already played a bit with the big-league club will remain in the mix for potential playing time.
“We’ve got a couple of young guys that are making some big strides,” Trotz said, referring to a group that includes Thomas Hickey, Sebastian Aho and Bode Wilde, among others.
“We’re just going to have to sort that out,” he went on. “They all bring little different things and they’re all also in different development or career phases. We’re going to let it play out. I was impressed with a lot of guys.
There’s not a lot of give. There’s some backside pressure, which is really good when you have that.”
Beginning next week, the Isles will have to put their new-look defense up against some of the top scoring teams in the sport.
As a member of the newly formed East Division, New York will try to slow down top-10 offenses from Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh and even the hated Blueshirts.
Judging from their attitude in this brief training camp, the Isles’ last line of defense believes it is up to the task.
“In the past, guys have stepped up every chance they’ve gotten,” Leddy said. “It’ll be the same thing now. There’s new opportunities. As a team, we still have a ton of confidence. We pride ourselves on being a good, defensive team and that’s what makes us a very good team.”
Good enough to seriously contend for Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice for a second consecutive year?
We’ll begin to find that out when the puck drops at the Garden Wednesday night.
In local college sports news, former St. Francis Brooklyn multi-sport star Cristin Mullen (Class of 2007) passed away last month, leaving behind a legacy as both a versatile and dynamic athlete and a standout in the classroom at the Remsen Street School.
“The entire St. Francis College Brooklyn Athletics community is extremely saddened to learn about the passing of Cristin Mullen,” said SFC Brooklyn athletic director Irma Garcia.
“During her time at SFC, Cristin was an integral part of our Athletics family as a standout member of the cross country, track & field, and swimming and diving programs. She will be dearly missed and we are keeping her entire family in our thoughts and prayers.”
Mullen, a Rockaway Beach native, was a two-time St. Francis Female Student-Athlete of the Year in 2004-05 and 2006-07, respectively. She was also a 2005 Northeast Conference Valley National Bank Scholar Athlete.
“Our community lost an inspirational Irish-American woman: a teacher, a lifeguard, a coach, a mentor, a good friend, and an all-around athlete,” said the school’s assistant director of athletics Carl Quigley.
“Cristin faced life’s challenges as mountains to climb or obstacles to overcome. Cristin Mullen is now an angel on God’s team.”
Donations in Mullen’s name can be made to Autism Speaks 1060 State Road, 2nd Floor Princeton, NJ 08540, autismspeaks.org or Epilepsy Foundation 8301 Professional Place Landover, MD 20785, epilepsy.com.