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Get to Know the Islanders: Defensemen

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With a blend of experience and youth on the blue line, the Islanders will look to slow down the high powered Penguins’ offense.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Islanders were one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL, and as a result, missed the playoffs by a rather wide margin. This season presented a marked turnaround for the Islanders on defense, as head Barry Trotz came in and fostered a major bounce back campaign.

Statistically, the Islanders are one of the best defensive units in the league, but those numbers are partially buoyed by the stellar play of their goaltenders. When digging deeper into the underlying numbers of the Islanders blueliners, some vulnerabilities start to emerge. That could be a troublesome sign when the Islanders defense will be tasked with slowing down the like of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the Penguins offensive attack in the first round.

Before the series starts, get to know the Islanders’ defensive corps a little better.

Top Pairing

Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk

If there are two guys in this Islanders’ defense that Penguins fans will be familiar with its these two, and you’re about to get a lot more familiar with them as they will likely be seeing a lot of time against the Crosby line.

Leddy and Boychuk bring plenty of experience with them, both with a Stanley Cup under their belt. That experience will play an important role, as Leddy and Boychuk are the veterans on a rather young Islanders’ blue line with some teammates making their playoff debuts this year.

Playing on home ice in the first two games of this series, Trotz is likely going to want his veteran pair on the ice against the Penguins’ top line as much as possible. While that may be Trotz’s game plan, it could very well work in favor of the Penguins.

From an analytics perspective, the Leddy-Boychuk combo struggles with possession, posting just a 44.8 Corsi For percentage this season. For comparison sake, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel posted a 55.1 CF% when together this season, meaning this could be a big mismatch in the Penguins’ favor.

Leddy and Boychuk spent more than 835 minutes on the ice together this season — the most among all of the Islanders’ defensive pairings. They both bring in years of NHL playoff experience that they will need to rely upon when going up against the high-powered Penguins’ offense. With some of their fellow blueliners just getting their toes wet for the first time, the Islanders will rely heavily on this veteran pair to keep the Pens locked down.

Middle Pairing

Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock

The drop off in playoff experience for the Islanders’ defense begins here at the second pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. While Pulock did participate in six playoff games back in 2016, Pelech will be making his debut in this series. Both guys are 24-years-old and both just completed their second full season at the NHL level.

Both were a consistent presence in the lineup for the Islanders this season. Pulock played in all 82 games, while Pelech registered 78. Together they played 822 minutes as a pairing, coming in just behind the top pairing of Leddy and Boychuk.

A quick look at their underlying numbers sees some improvement over the top pairing, but not by much. Like Leddy-Boychuk, possession metrics should be a major concern for this pairing, especially going up against one of the Penguins’ top lines. They combined for a CF% of 47.3 this season, but were bailed out by the goaltenders who posted a .943 save percentage when this pairing was on the ice.

This is a pairing that can create some offense for the Islanders, especially from Pulock. He led the Islanders defense in goals (nine), assists (28), and total points (37). Pulock will also see time on the second power play unit alongside Nick Leddy at the point. With the top pairing taking on the Crosby assignment, expect to see Pelech and Pulock trying to lock it down against Evgeni Malkin and Co.

Bottom Pairing

Devon Toews-Scott Mayfield

From 169 games of NHL playoff experience on the top pairing to just two games of experience here on the bottom pairing, Devon Toews and Scott Mayfield make up this third and final pairing of the Islanders defense, and they are the least experienced pairing of the three. Toews just broke into the NHL this season, playing his first game just before Christmas. In fact, when he takes the ice Wednesday night, it will be the first time he ever plays against the Penguins. His blue line partner Scott Mayfield made his NHL debut back in 2014, but he only just completed his first full tour at the NHL level this season.

From a possession standpoint, this pairing has been the best of the three this year, although they only played a total of 47 games together for a combined 522 minutes of ice time. Checking in with a CF% of 53.5, Toews and Mayfield are far and away the best possession pair of the group. Those numbers may be aided slightly by facing mostly depth lines, but the more you have the puck the better in any case. It will be interesting to see how they handle their assignments in this series if the Penguins stick with their line shuffling from practice.

Toews made his NHL debut back in December in place of an injured Thomas Hickey and never relinquished his spot in the lineup. It sounds like the Islanders have very high hopes for Toews going forward, and it’s not hard to see why. In just 48 games, he posted five goals and 18 points, a pace that would have put him among the team leaders in both categories. His offensive skill did not go unnoticed by the coaching staff either as he helps run the point on the top power play unit with Jordan Eberle. Keep an eye on Toews; this series is hardly the last time we’ll hear his name.

Depth

Thomas Hickey

It certainly feels like Thomas Hickey has been around forever, and I still maintain that his name sounds like it belongs to an old time military general. Hickey went down due to an injury in late-December and was replaced in the lineup by Toews. When he returned, he struggled mightily on the ice and was eventually healthy scratched. It looks like he is simply a depth guy should someone sustain an injury.

Overall Thoughts

The Penguins’ offense going against the Islanders’ defense presents a very interesting matchup.

For as good as the Islanders goalies were this season, there is a case to be made they bailed out the defense more than a few times this season. From a possession standpoint, the Islanders are unimpressive at best and perhaps even worse when you look at how the matchups make play out in this series. If the Penguins’ top lines can feast on those top two pairings, and the goaltending slips even a little bit, the Islanders could find themselves in trouble quickly.

Another way to view this is by looking at the Islanders’ defense up against the Penguins’ defense and how they compare from an analytical perspective.

via Sean Tierney (@Charting Hockey)

Based on the graphic, you can see the difference in what the Penguins will be putting on the blue compared to what we will see from the Islanders. That top pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin really sticks out from the pack, but even regulars like Marcus Pettersson and Erik Gudbranson should net positive results. As for the Islanders, almost their enter d-corps huddles around the middle, meaning they are not a major threat offensively and can be exposed in their own zone.

If the Penguins can play their game and control possession, they can put pressure on the Islanders’ defense and maybe even expose their lack of playoff experience. There is no doubt the Islanders’ goaltenders put in a season to remember, but if the shot volume ticks higher and higher, the odds are in the Penguins’ favor that the goals will start coming.

(All statistics taken from Natural Stat Trick)