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Islanders 2019-20 Season Preview: Defense and Goalies

NewYorkIslanders.com takes a look at the Isles defense heading into 2019-20.

by Sasha Kandrach KandrachSasha / NewYorkIslanders.com

This is part two of NewYorkIslanders.com's 2019-20 season preview. Read a breakdown of the forward corps here.


The feeling of pride is earned not given. It's a quality the Islanders have deservingly acquired following an unprecedented defensive turnaround within the span of a year. Last season, the Isles defense established themselves as an unforgiving and relentless unit leading the league in goals against.

The Islanders went from surrendering a league-high 293 goals in 2018 to leading the league in goals against with 191 and advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2016. This season, the Isles return nearly the same d-core of: Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Devon Toews, Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk and welcome the emergence of 19-year-old Noah Dobson. Ahead of the 2019-20 season, the blueline looks to build off of the foundation set from last season and continue to be one of the toughest defenses to face across the league. 

"The biggest challenge is maintaining your foundation," Trotz explained. "Don't forget who you are, what you do and why you do it and keep growing your game. I thought we were one of the better five-on-five teams in the National Hockey League. We were known as a defensive team and we did. We did a great job defensively, but we were OK five-on-five offensively and better than some of the offensive teams in the NHL. Where they were better were some of the special teams. We've got to grow an area of our game. Try to maintain what we did five-on-five, which is going to be difficult because we set a high standard there."


RYAN PULOCK AND ADAM PELECH:

Ryan Pulock established himself not only as a regular in the lineup, but as a top-pair defenseman capable of playing big minutes and in clutch situations. The 2013 first rounder (15th overall) recorded a career-high 37-points (9G, 28A) through 82 games and led the Islanders time on ice with a nightly average of 22:22. Pulock registered three power-play goals and a utilized his deadly clapper, with a team-high six of slap shot goals. 

Throughout the season, Pulock was paired alongside his familiar d-partner Adam Pelech. The pair aligned with Trotz's theme of assembling an offensive-minded d-man with a physical, stay-at-home blueliner. The chemistry between the Pelech-Pulock pairing grew as the season wore on and a testament to how the two complement each other. Pelech recorded a season-high 21-point (5G, 16A) season and led his fellow blueliners in hits (145). 

Pelech and Pulock were solid in Stanley Cup Playoffs as well and suited-up for all eight games of the postseason. The duo was key in the Islanders' first round sweep over Pittsburgh, which included restraining Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel to a combined two-points in four games. Trotz plans to lean on this pair again this season.

"With anything, I think the more you do something the more confidence you gain and the more comfortable you are in certain situations," Pelech said. "The thing is; you can never be content. You have to keep working to be better. You want the coaches want to keep putting you out in situations and to keep playing big minutes."


DEVON TOEWS AND SCOTT MAYFIELD:

It was a sensational breakout season for Devon Toews, who burst onto the scene as a 25-year-old rookie. While Toews was a favorite of the coaching staff out of training camp, he was sent back to Bridgeport for extra seasoning, but the late bloomer made the most of his call-up on Dec. 23 and remained in the lineup into playoffs. Through 48 games, the nimble puck-mover had 18 points (5G, 13A) and quarterbacked the Isles second power-play unit. In the postseason, Toews recorded five points (1G 4A) in eight games. 

Toews is taking nothing for granted as he heads into his sophomore season. Line pairings have yet to be solidified, but Toews and Scott Mayfield established a steady rapport with their pairing last season. 

Video: Mayfield Wins Block of the Year

Mayfield, a gritty, but fluid skater with a 6-foot-5, 223-pound frame, balances out the offensive inclinations of Toews and vice versa. Mayfield posted a career-high 19 points (4G, 15A) and led the Islanders in blocks with 159. 

"There's confidence in me and Toews as a pair, we grew together," Mayfield said. "We complement each other really well. I think that's what Trotz likes to see in his d-pairs, or at least what he seemed to use last year. We complement each other well. I can be pretty physically, get in the corners and get the puck out and he uses his speed on the ice to get the first pass. We always read off each other really well."


NICK LEDDY AND JOHNNY BOYCHUK:

After taking home the NHL's unofficial 'Green Jacket' for the NHL's lowest plus/minus in 2017-18, Nick Leddy bounced back with a solid season in 2018-19. 

Under Trotz's defense-first system, Leddy closed out the regular season with an even rating, recorded 26 points (4G, 22A) in 82 games, logged the second-highest time on ice behind Pulock at 18:22 and quarterbacked the Isles power play. Leddy's extensive playoff experience (80 games), including a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2013, helped provide insight during the Isles postseason run, which was a first for a third of the Isles roster. 

Video: PIT@NYI, Gm1: Leddy fires knuckling puck by Murray

The frequent counterpart to Leddy last season was veteran Johnny Boychuk. Like Leddy, Boychuk's accomplished resume is crucial to his budding and less-experienced teammates. The 35-year-old veteran battled a lingering injury at the end of last season but returns healthy for the 2019-20 season. Through 74 games last season Boychuk had 19 points (3G, 16A) and helps complete Trotz's goal of pairing an offensive and defensive - and lefty-righty - defensemen. 


NOAH DOBSON

Noah Dobson is the new face on the Islanders blue line after making the team's 23-man roster out of training camp. 

Dobson earned his way onto the team with an impressive camp, but the decision to keep him was partially impacted by his AHL age ineligibility that allotted Noah Dobson two options; return to a fourth year of juniors or make the Islanders opening night roster. With the big picture in mind, and understanding Dobson's prolific capabilities as a mobile defenseman, the organization opted to keep the highly touted 19-year-old on the team and further groom him in the meantime. 

Video: The game itself doesn't overwhelm him

The decision affected more than just Dobson and the coaching staff, as maintaining seven defensemen on the roster resulted in the departure of veteran Thomas Hickey to Bridgeport. But after back-to-back Memorial Cup titles, a maturity beyond his tender age, exquisite hockey IQ and eagerness to learn, the coaching staff and management agreed that keeping Dobson on the roster was ultimately the best decision.

Through six preseason games, the lanky 6-foot-4, 195-pound PEI native showcased his aptitude and versatility against top lines, on the power play and got a taste of the rigor of an NHL schedule. 

"One thing that you find of a young player of his caliber is that the game itself doesn't overwhelm him," coach Trotz said. "He's got the skill set, he's got the hockey IQ, he has his skating, all of that. More than anything, it's just strength and endurance at this level."


THE GOALIES: SEMYON VARLAMOV AND THOMAS GREISS

This season, the Islanders goalie tandem is Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov. Greiss returns coming off a career-best year with a 23-14-2 record, a .927 save percentage a 2.28 goals against average and five shutouts. 

Varlamov signed a four-year deal with the Islanders on July 1 as a free agent. Last season the 31-year-old Russian netminder battled a lingering injury last season and served as Colorado's backup throughout playoffs. Varlamov finished the season with a .909 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.87. As Varlamov enters his 12th season in the NHL, he is eager for a change of scenery and fresh opportunity with his new club. 

Video: PIT@NYI: Greiss lays out to poke it away from Crosby

"It's a learning process," Varlamov said. "You don't learn this all in Day 1. We need some time on the ice and training together. That's what we've been doing, and it's been great so far. I personally learned a lot from this training camp. I've made some adjustments in my game. I'm still learning. Nothing is right away; it takes time to learn these things. But I'm just excited to work with these two guys."

The duo will continue to work closely with Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn and Goaltending Coach Piero Greco. Under the guidance and craft of Korn and Greco, last year's tandem of Greiss and Robin Lehner were the recipients of the William M. Jennings Trophy awarded annually to the goaltender(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it based on regular-season play (191). Trotz hasn't named his opening night starter, but said that he expects a similar setup to last season in terms of workload.  

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