The New York Islander Defense: Playoff Worthy?

The New York Islanders are poised to take a step up this season from their usual bottom-five finish.  While far from a playoff lock, most pundits have pegged the Islanders as a team on the rise and no doubt in the mix for a playoff berth, something they have only accomplished twice in general manager Garth Snow‘s eight-year tenure.  And everyone in the hockey community has the same question:

Is the Islander defense good enough?

It’s a fair question.  Always known for their penny-pinching ways, the team was active this summer and acquired goaltender Jaroslav Halak as well as forwards Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.  Halak is the number one netminder the team has lacked since Rick DiPietro was healthy nearly a decade ago while the Kulemin/Grabovski duo adds significant depth up front to a group led by Hart-candidate John Tavares.  But the forward group doesn’t stop there as the team also sports Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Michael Grabner and second-year players Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome up front which will no doubt make training camp interesting to see which forwards break camp with the big club.

But no matter how many goals they can score, it won’t mean squat if there isn’t a significant increase in the play of the blue-line. For a team with plenty of questions on the back-end, the Islander defense only added T.J. Brennan to its group this summer from outside the organization.  Brennan is a 25-year old offensive defenseman who had cups of coffee with the Sabres and Panthers previously.  Last season playing for the Toronto Marlies, Brennan posted 72 points in 76 games and has a chance to make the Islander defense this October.

Excuse me though if I’m not planning the parade route.

The rest of the defense expected to make the club this year: Travis Hamonic (two concussions), Calvin de Haan (two glass shoulders), Lubomir Visnovsky (six concussions), Matt Carkner (two left feet), Brian Strait, Thomas Hickey, Matt Donovan, and rookie Griffin Reinhart have legitimate question marks about either their injury history, overall play, or both.

Too often in recent seasons the Islander defense would be pushed around in its own end, pinned deep, and generally ineffective against other teams’ forward groups.  Things would be even worse if they were facing off against a team with a physical group up front who could bully the Islander defense.  The fact that Snow largely ignored this need during the summer is another strike against the man who has done far too little in an extended tenure so far.

It may be unfair, but the key to the Islander defense this season could very well be rookie Griffin Reinhart.  The fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, the son of former NHL’er Paul, brother of newly-drafted Flame Sam, is projected to be your prototypical shutdown defenseman.  If he can manage the early growing pains expected from a rookie defenseman, Reinhart would be a welcome addition to an Islander defense that hasn’t finished in the top-20 in goals allowed since the 2006/07 season.  Yes, 2006/07.  It’s far too big a responsibility to heap on a rookie’s shoulders, but three weeks before opening night, and here we are.

Beyond Reinhart, the talent just isn’t deep.  Hamonic has matured into a solid second-pairing defenseman.  de Haan finally broke into the everyday lineup last season after several injury-plagued seasons.  Visnovsky provides an element to the blue-line that the team lacks with his offensive ability, but the odds of him playing a full season are somewhere between “slim” and “none.”  The rest of the group- Carkner, Hickey, Strait, Donovan, Brennan- can be mixed and matched for the remaining spots and just hope that the combination works for that given night.  Right now it’s just not an inspiring group and certainly not one that any fan should be comfortable guaranteeing a playoff spot with.

However, that can change, and change quickly perhaps.  The Islanders have 16 legitimate candidates for its 12 forward spots.  If you assume they will carry two extra for a total of 14, that still leaves two players that won’t be with the big club once October hits.  They can send down youngsters Strome and Anders Lee (very possible), but doing so would leave the team without two forwards who are no doubt among the organization’s 12 best.

It makes far too much sense for the Islanders to make a move for a defenseman before the season starts.  Rumors have been floating around that Boston will be forced to move Johnny Boychuk to free up cap space.  Boychuk would immediately slide into the Islanders’ top four while moving lesser plays down into roles more befitting of their talents (Hickey to the third pair, Carkner or Strait to the street).

If not Boychuk, would Arizona entertain offers for Keith Yandle?  The offensively gifted defenseman would certainly bring more punch to an Islander defense that scored a unit-low 23 goals last season.  The Coyotes seem to be forever in need of forwards, so would a Michael Grabner for Yandle swap work for both sides?  How about Frans Nielsen for Yandle (ducking from arrows being fired)?

It’s time for Snow to get creative to address the defense.  No doubt this would be the Islanders dealing from a strength to fortify a weakness. While fans may not want to send away one of their own, the defense as it’s constructed now is simply not good enough to bring the team a playoff spot over the course of the regular season.  Sure the organization has some talented defensemen in their system with Ryan Pulock and Ville Pokka among others, but the time for the Islanders to take steps forward and win is now, not next year or the year after.

The Islanders still have three more weeks before opening night against the Hurricanes to correct the issue.  If Garth Snow fails again, it will be a disappointing last season in the Nassau Coliseum, something no fan wants to think about now.