One look at the list of Islanders picks from last weekend’s draft provides a glimpse at the direction that the club is heading. Not only did team management choose defensemen with all seven picks, but four of them stand at least 6’3. Griffin Reinhart (6’4”), Adam Pelech (6’3”), Loic Leduc (6’6”) and Doyle Somerby (6’5”) are some of the players the Islanders added last weekend to keep up with what Head Coach Jack Capuano calls a league-wide trend.
“LA was a big team this year and they were physical,” Capuano said of the 2012 Stanley Cup Champions. “I don’t sit in all the amateur meetings, but you can see the trend in this year with the defense and in the last couple of years with the size.”
Last year at the 2011 NHL Draft, the Islanders drafted Scott Mayfield and Andrey Pedan, two blueliners who stand above the 6’4 mark. This week at the annual prospect camp, the team has eight defensemen at least that tall, including two camp invites with no formal ties to the organization.
“It’s the first time I’m not the tallest one,” Leduc said, laughing. “In midget and in junior I was one of the biggest guys, so this is something new.”
In a sport as physical as hockey, it’s not hard to see where size comes in handy, especially for a defenseman, whose job relies on the ability to force opposing players away from scoring areas.
“Of course it helps a ton,” Mayfield said. “I think the biggest thing is just being able to put some muscle on the puck – to overpower your opponent. When you’re going into the corners, the size helps. And then when you block shots, you’ve got a bigger body on the ice.”
It also helps players knock the puck away from their opponents. At 6’5, Somerby has about a 77-inch wingspan without even holding a stick. On the ice, that kind of reach, paired with a quick stride, can help a player close a gap with the puck-carrier in a hurry.
“The reach definitely helps,” Somerby said. “It gives me a little bit of an advantage going into the corners. If I get beat, it helps me catch up a little bit.”
Most of the players at this week’s camp are just teenagers, expected to add to their size over the next few years. In fact, most of the players have added at least one inch to their height and 10-15 pounds to their frame since last fall.
“These guys, they’re just young kids when they get drafted,” Capuano said. “They’re just starting to mature into their bodies, and they’re only going to get bigger as they go through their junior careers or college careers. But it’s good to see they’re putting the weight on in the right way.”
But with size comes some added difficulties. While it may seem easy for a player almost seven feet tall on skates to lay a crushing hit on an opponent, that player still has to do it within the rules of the game.
“When you go in there against a smaller guy,” Mayfield said, “you kind of have to know that you can’t hit him regularly, because your hands are up at his head. So you’ve got to be careful with that, especially with all the new rules against hits to that area.”
“Oh yeah, you need to watch out for that, for sure,” Leduc added. “When you hit a smaller person, you need to be a little bit lower so you don’t hit them in the face or anything.”
While Mayfield is heading back to the University of Denver this fall and Leduc will probably go back to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, it’s fun to imagine what this group of Islanders defensemen could look like a few years down the road.
Unless you’re playing against them.