The Islanders are starting the season with eight defensemen vying for six regular spots. It's a familiar group, as all eight suited up for the Islanders last season. The biggest shakeup to the D corps was trading Travis Hamonic to Calgary on draft day.
"There will be nights where every single one of us gets a call where we have to play 23 or 24 [minutes]," Thomas Hickey said. "You can't stay healthy through a whole 82, so we're going to see everyone and we have no doubts about any of the eight guys on our defense."
Head Coach Doug Weight is comfortable with one-through-eight, as long as they play an up-tempo game, activating on the breakout and playing hard in their own zone. He wants short shifts and a hard-and-fast, "hit-em-first" identity from his blue line.
"I think they are all intense, smart players," Weight said of his d corps. "They know the game, they want to battle. We have really good people back there, coachable, pay close attention to how to play the game, they work and they're skilled. We were talking yesterday about the eight D and they are all really coachable guys and good guys."
THE YOUNG GUYS:
When the Islanders traded Hamonic in June, a spot - and roughly 20 minutes a night - opened up on the Islanders' blue line.
To fill that hole, the Islanders are looking inward, counting on Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock.
"Everyone knows what Hammer meant to us as a team and what he meant to this organization, but at the same time it's another spot open," Mayfield said. "I'm here to play here full time. It's my job to perform in camp and take it into this season."
The three young defensemen - all 24 or younger - have been one of the more intriguing storylines at camp. Mayfield, Pelech and Pulock have been in this position before, but now are all one year older and more experienced. They'll be pushing each other and the veterans for minutes this season, creating the kind of internal competition coaches love to see.
"It pushes everybody and gets everybody going," Dennis Seidenberg said. "You don't want it any other way. It just makes you better."
All three have a similar amount of NHL experience, but play different games. Pulock is the most offensive of the three, with a glass-shattering shot and 39 goals and 100 points in 163 AHL games. Mayfield is the toughest, playing the most physical game of the three with a willingness to drop the gloves, while Pelech brings reliability in his own end.
"I'm a big fan of Pelly's game," Thomas Hickey said. "It's maybe not appreciated by a ton of people, but to people that really enjoy hockey and defense, Pelly's a special player. Ryan is just going to keep on getting better and better. It's been fun playing with him. He's a guy that rides off momentum, so once you see him get hot and get some good luck he's going to continue to get better."
"Mayfield is tough, he boxes out and moves the puck well," Boychuk said. "He's a good competitior. We've seen it before and he keeps doing it."
Weight challenged each to stake his claim, but considering how different their games are from one another, who gets in the lineup on any given night could come down to what the Islanders feel they need against a particular opponent.
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Nick Leddy's offensive numbers have grown every year since being traded to the Islanders three years ago. Last season, he set career highs in goals (11) and points (46) and finished top-15 in scoring among NHL defensemen.
"He's right there in that upper echelon of defensemen," Weight said. "He's getting more consistent and he should be in the talk for those top teams and Norris Trophy. He can skate, shoot and he's a savvy player as well."
Leddy's the team's best skater, most-offensively productive defenseman, plays on the top pairing and first power-play unit. He's played 81 games in back-to-back seasons and led the Islanders with 22:43 TOI/GP last season, so he's also their horse. Weight said the 26-year-old's ceiling can go even higher.
"He should be a guy that can play north of 24 [minutes] on most nights and, if need be, up to the 30 mark," Weight said. "He's a real important piece. He's an engine and when he's on his game we generally win and we generally look like we have the puck."
Johnny Boychuk brings a different and complimentary skill set to the Islanders top pairing. His best attributes are his shot and his physical play. While he's not a stay-at-home defenseman, he cedes the rushes up the ice to his smooth-skating D-partner. Boychuk has notched at least 23 points in each of the last four seasons and plays big minutes, as his 20:43 TOI/GP was second most on the team last season.
Boychuk was the Islanders' second-most used defenseman on the power play in 2016-17, averaging 1:49 TOI/GP and was the second-most used blue liner on the penalty kill, averaging 2:05.
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CALVIN DE HAAN:
With Doug Weight transitioning the Islanders shot blocking mentality from block everything to let the goalie see it, no one's body should benefit more than Calvin de Haan. The Islanders defenseman was fourth in the NHL last season with 190 blocks and while it's one of his strong suits, a new approach should lead to fewer bumps and bruises.
De Haan is coming off a career-year, with 25 points (5G, 20A) in 82 games. The solid season earned him a chance to play for Team Canada at the IIHF Worlds in May and a new one-year contract this summer. The uptick in points showed that de Haan can contribute at both ends of the ice and the 26-year-old is looking to carry that momentum forward this season.
"There's always room to improve," de Haan said. "I had career numbers and I'm just looking to build off that and go from there. Do what I do best. Not try to do much and play my game."
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Thomas Hickey reinforced his reputation as a big-game player last season. Two of his four goals were game-winners, including an OT-winner as a forward in the Isles' late-season playoff push. The Islanders' smallest defenseman may have the team's biggest heart and his effort level and hockey sense are never in question.
Seidenberg said it was an easy decision to resign with the Islanders after having his best offensive season (5G, 17A) since 2011-12 last year and finding a nice groove playing alongside de Haan. The 36-year-old is in Atlas-like shape and continued playing into May, scoring eight points (1G, 7A) in eight games at the IIHF World Championships, where he also won Top Defenseman honors. With the influx of youth on the Islanders blue line, Seidenberg is a steady veteran presence.
"I believe in what I can do and can still play and I think they saw the same thing," Seidenberg said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I would be able to play every game."
Jaroslav Halak led all goalies with a .974 SV% and a 0.75 GAA in the preseason, stopping 76-of-78 shots in eight periods of preseason play. Thomas Greiss was right behind him as the second goalie in each category, with a .961 SV% and a 1.13 GAA, stopping 73-of-76 shots over eight periods.
That doesn't make things easy for Weight, who has yet to name his opening-night starter, but with a back-to-back on opening weekend, both goalies will get a look. From there, it'll likely be the hot hand who keeps playing, but for the Islanders, they'll get reliable goaltending every night.
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"As far as I'm concerned, I have two great goalies and I'm excited to see them challenge each other in a great teammate kind of way," Weight said. "I'll have some tough decisions and I'm sure I'll have a big German mad at me sometimes and I'll have Jaro mad at me sometimes, but they are going to challenge each other and I am completely confident in what I've seen so far.