As the preseason starts to come to a close and the Islanders are eight days away from the season opener at Carolina, the roster is starting to take shape. Cuts over the past few days have included Joshua Ho-Sang, Kieffer Bellows, and Sebastian Aho, who are all close to, or are, NHL-ready players. Even though the forward core is something, or at this point, anything, to look at, the defense core is where the questions come along this season. Due to waiver issues and contracts that are basically immovable, the Islanders are destined to start the season with 13 forwards, eight defenseman, and two goalies.
The goalies are set with Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, and the forwards are almost settled with 16 still in camp, and that is including Stephen Gionta, who is back on a PTO, and the oft-injured (and injured once again) Andrew Ladd. The defense, however, is very middle-of-the-pack.
Excluding Dennis Seidenberg, who is still on his PTO, here are my rankings for the capabilities of the eight defensemen projected to make the roster (Seids would be ninth):
8) Scott Mayfield
I mean, am I wrong? Mayfield is entering his first healthy season in the NHL, which also happens to be the first season of his five-year, $7.25 million extension that he signed in January. This past season, he dealt with a broken leg which kept him out for the greater part of the back half of the season. He only played in 47 games last season, scoring two goals and 12 points with a -6, which is a good plus/minus considering a certain defenseman who we will get to soon had a much, much, worse number. A lot is expected of Mayfield this season in order for him to guarantee a roster spot with upcoming defensemen like Noah Dobson, Sebastian Aho, and Mitch Vande Sompel up sooner rather than later.
7) Luca Sbisa
I just think it is too early to regard Sbisa much higher than this. Sbisa was just signed to a one year, $1.5 million deal to, basically, replace Dennis Seidenberg. Last year, as an alternate captain for the Western-Conference Champion Vegas Golden Knights (still so weird saying that, hasn’t soaked in that they were THAT good last season), he scored two goals and 14 points in just 30 games due to constant injury problems. In the Playoffs, he added four assists in 12 games. It may seem like he played well on Vegas last season, but again, that’s VEGAS we’re talking about. I’m not expecting him to suck, but I’m not expecting him to put up Vegas numbers.
6) Adam Pelech
Is it weird to say that I am optimistic about the upcoming season for Adam Pelech? Probably, but that is the case for some fans like myself. Pelech, who is entering the second season of his four-year, $6.4 million deal that he signed July 2017, scored three goals and put up 19 points with a +7 in 78 games last season. He would have definitely had more goals if they counted own goals, but with Barry Trotz and his new staff coming in, Pelech has looked better this preseason, and I’m not talking about the jersey number (even though he does look good in #3).
5) Devon Toews
He may be at number five, but number 25 has looked like the second-best defenseman for the Islanders this preseason. Devon Toews had a rough season in the AHL last year, going through shoulder surgery that kept him out January and beyond last season. Toews, 24, is slated to get his first shot with the Islanders this season after signing a two-year, one-way contract this offseason. In 2016-17, Toews put up astounding numbers as a rookie with Bridgeport, scoring five goals and 45 points and a +18 while playing all 76 games, making the AHL All-Star Game, while winning the fastest skater competition. Last season, he was on pace to put up even better numbers by scoring eight goals and tallying 22 points in the first 30 games of the AHL season. Toews may end up being an essential part of the Islanders defense this season playing with one of the top three on the list.
4) Johnny Boychuk
Oh boy, we are back once again in the world of Johnny Boychuk’s injuries. The 34-year old is entering his fifth season with the Islanders and his fourth on his seven-year, $42 million deal he signed midway through the 2014-15 season. His durability keeps going down, playing in only 56 games last season, and scoring only six goals and 18 points while putting up a -8, all career lows with the Islanders. I mean, there is not much more to say about him, just that we can only hope that not only he stays healthy, but he returns to the form that the Islanders saw in his first few seasons with the team.
3) Thomas Hickey
Thomas Hickey. Yes, he is back once again, and on a long-term deal. Hickey signed a four-year, $10 million deal this offseason to continue being a key asset to the Islanders’ defense core. In only 69 games last season, Hickey put up career-highs with 25 points (six goals) and a +20. PLUS-TWENTY. He has been one of the most consistent defensemen for the Islanders since his arrival in 2013. Hickey has had a love-hate relationship with the Islanders fanbase, but I think it’s time to realize that he is one hell of a defenseman when healthy, and a healthy Hickey is what Trotz wants to see this season while playing with a defenseman like Toews or Sbisa.
2) Nick Leddy
MINUS FORTY-TWO. FORTY-TWO. Is that Scott Mayfield’s old number with a negative sign before it? No, it’s not. That is the plus/minus for 27-year-old Nick Leddy, who is also in his fifth season with the Islanders and his fourth on his seven-year, $38.5 million extension that he signed alongside Boychuk’s extension. Leddy finished last season with ten goals and 42 points in 80 games, which sounds respectable until you add the -42 into the equation. The extent of what needs to be said about Leddy is that if Trotz and his staff do to Leddy what they did to John Carlson then he should be back to normal. If not, then have fun playing with Boychuk once again until he gets hurt, and then… Adam Pelech? No… not that paring again… Well, at least we can compensate with…
1) Ryan Pulock
Ryan Pulock, 23, signed a two-year, $4 million bridge contract this offseason. Pulock led all defenseman with ten goals and was third with 32 points in only 68 games in a season which he could have been easily number one if someone played him every day (COUGH COUGH DOUGIE). His season included a five-point game with one goal and four assists versus the Blackhawks, becoming the first Islander rookie defenseman to do so, and the eighth all time. Interestingly, Pulock has been playing with Adam Pelech in practice. Maybe Trotz is experimenting a pairing that could help Pelech rebound from a poor season and help Pulock keep growing, but either way, the Islanders, and the fan base, are relying on Pulock and the rest of the defense to step it up and help Lehner and Greiss this season.
Do you agree with my rankings of the Islanders’ eight defensemen? Leave a comment below with your rankings!