Defense wins championships. It’s the oldest adage in sports, but it speaks the truth. When Barry Trotz took over behind the New York Islanders bench in 2018, he built a strong defensive-minded system, turning one of the worst defenses in the NHL into one of the best, with the same personnel.
That system helped get the New York Islanders to back-to-back semi-final appearances.
With Lane Lambert now behind the bench following Trotz’s firing after a hectic 2021-22 campaign, the New York Islanders may play a bit looser and more aggressive on the offensive side of the puck. That strong defensive structure that brought Trotz and the Islanders success in the three years prior, broke down last season.
The defensive structure needs to get back to its shutdown status this season if the Islanders want to bounce back.
In Sunday’s 2-1 preseason win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Islanders’ defensive structure looked much stronger than it did through the first two preseason contests against the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils (4-1 losses).
It was not a perfect showing Sunday, especially early in the contest for the Alexander Romanov-Noah Dobson pairing, as they still try to learn one another’s game on the fly.
But that duo settled down, and Romanov showed off an aggressiveness that we did not see from him against the New York Rangers a week ago (last Monday).
A defensive-minded structure needs aggressiveness.
When defenders are stepping up at the blue line, it forces the opponent to dump and chase, and also be aware that if they try to cross the Islanders’ blue line, it will not feel too good.
“[Defense] as a whole, they [the coaching staff] want us to be aggressive and stay up on guys,” Noah Dobson shared. “So I think it’s just working together with your partner. When he [Romanov] steps up, I gotta cover. When I step, he’s got to cover, stuff like that, but I thought we were better with our gaps and aggressiveness tonight.”
And when the Islanders’ defense shuts down the opponents, it makes life much easier for the goaltenders, as Semyon Varlamov had a strong showing Sunday after struggling in the preseason opener.
Forwards also have a part to play in keeping that defensive structure intact, and on Sunday night, we saw countless times where passes were interrupted in the neutral zone and the Islanders zone.
We also saw some strong backchecking by forwards.
That’s what the defensive structure does on the defensive side of the puck. On offense, the system, in theory, should provide easier transitions up the ice. And with each defensive pairing containing a transitioner, the defensive group is pretty balanced.
When the Islanders are cycling in the offensive zone, as we saw numerous times Sunday night due to strong breakouts and neutral zone decisions, the quick transition to their defensive coverages allowed them to position themselves appropriately.
That quick thinking helped deny many of the Flyers’ attempts to escape their zone.
Although not defense-related, the New York Islanders got a big goal from Scott Mayfield with under five minutes to play in the second period. Seven of the 23 Islanders’ shots on goal tonight came from Islanders’ defenseman–Noah Dobson led with three.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) October 3, 2022
In total, the Islanders’ defense had ten attempts on Flyers’ netminder Samuel Ersson.
“Yeah, I thought we, you know, defensively, I thought we were solid in our zone, for the most part,” Lane Lambert said postgame. “You’re never going to be perfect, but defensively our structure in our zone was much better tonight.”
“We expect to be in a lot of these [close] games, and…it was a good opportunity for us to hold onto that lead.”
In 2021-22, the New York Islanders played in 17 one-goal games and went 8-9-0, earning 16 of a possible 34 points.
Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are the two leaders on the back-end, a pairing that may be one of the best shutdown pairings in the NHL now that Pulock is 100% healthy after missing significant time a year ago.
Their ability to play off one another and their understanding of where one another is on the ice makes them as reliable as any pairing in the NHL.
“I think we just have a good friendship, and I think he leads on the ice, and he’s just so steady,” Ryan Pulock said regarding Adam Pelech following Sunday morning’s practice (non-game players took part). “We both try to kill plays, and defensively, he’s just got such a good stick and [is] so, so good [at] defending.”
“So for me, he makes it easy, and I just try to do my part and try to create some offense when I can.”
Ryan Pulock has struggled to be the offensive player he’s shown the team he could be after lighting the lamp 10 times in 68 games back in 2020-21. But if he can get the offensive production up, the Islanders become that much stronger of a team.
“I think, you know, that’s the biggest thing for me going forward here is just trying to improve that area of my game,” Pulock said. “I know inside that I can bring more offensively. I’ve done a little bit, and, you know, I still believe I can even bring more than that.”
“So just trying to find that and trying to put myself in a position to be able to help out in that way.”
The New York Islanders have two more preseason games before it’s time for the real thing. There is certainly room for improvements, as Romanov and Dobson are still learning one another’s game, along with Robin Salo and Scott Mayfield. But because of the defensive pairing balance and the defensive structure of the team, that allows there to be support on the ice if someone gets caught in the offensive zone or out of position.
Against a potent offense like the Florida Panthers, who come to UBS Arena a week from Wednesday for the season opener, we will be able to tell rather quickly how this defensive structure can hold up, initially, against high-powered offenses.