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Isles Embracing Competition on Blue Line

"We probably have more than six defensemen who should be playing every night."

by Cory Wright WrightsWay /

At 28, Nick Leddy is still a lot closer to his teenage years than his golden ones, but that didn't stop two unnamed Islanders teammates from calling him "old" during workouts on Thursday. 

Then again, it's all relative and on the current Islanders blue line, Leddy is on the older side - the third-oldest blueliner on the team - on a blue line that's both young and talented. 

"It's kind of crazy, I got called old in the workout room this year, twice," Leddy said at Thursday's media day. "I'm not sure if that was a compliment or what, but it's neat to see, the talent level has gotten better and better."

After allowing the fewest goals in the NHL last season, the Islanders blue line is a strength of the organization and boasts some nice depth It's intact too, as there are seven returning defensemen: Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews, while Luca Sbisa is back on a PTO.

"We probably have more than six defensemen who should be playing every night," Pelech said. "That breeds healthy competition. We had a similar situation last year and I think everyone has been in a similar situation in the past. It's a great way to breed healthy competition and everyone pushes each other and it'll bring the best out in us."

Pulock paced the group in goals (9) and points (37) last season, Pelech and Mayfield each had career years and Toews proved to be a revelation once he was recalled from Bridgeport. Leddy and Boychuk have been staples of the back end since arriving in 2014 and Hickey's been a steady presence, previously pairing with Pulock and Mayfield. 

That group doesn't even include Noah Dobson, the 12th-overall pick in the 2018 draft, who has seemingly outgrown juniors after winning back-to-back Memorial Cups and is looking to make the jump to the NHL. 

"That's been the goal of mine all summer, everything I've done is to work towards that trying to make the jump," Dobson said during the team's rookie camp. "I feel like I had a really good summer, I put on some weight, got stronger and I feel really confident. Now it's just about going in, having a good camp and making it a tough decision for them."

Dobson's situation presents the most intrigue at camp. At 19, he doesn't have the ability to play for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, so it's NHL or junior for the standout prospect. Trotz said another year in junior might not be beneficial for Dobson, so the prospect will get a quality look at camp. If he forces the issue, the Islanders may have to make room for his early arrival. 

"If he's ready - if the organization feels he's ready - you have assets and you have to figure out where that goes," Trotz said at the team's golf outing on Tuesday. "He's going to get a good a shot as anybody to make an impression and that's what he's going to try to do."

While Dobson adds a ninth contender for the six spots, the incumbent Isles aren't trying to ice out the blue-chip prospect. Mayfield and Pelech took Dobson - and fellow 2018 first-rounder Oliver Wahlstrom - out to lunch in the week leading up to camp, as Dobson arrived early to acclimate himself. All the Isles defensemen been in that situations before - Boychuk took Pelech out in his first few years - and while they're all competing for the same spots, they know it's a net positive for the team to have that competition. 

"The last couple years I've tried to come in and make statements and that's what he's doing too," Toews said of Dobson. "He's got a great track record, he's a good kid and I've talked to him a good amount and I love being around him too. The people here are going to try to help him the best they can and we're all rooting for him."

Even Toews, who grabbed a regular role and never relinquished it last year, isn't taking anything for granted at this year's camp. Toews has likely graduated from fighting for spots to fighting for more minutes, but with seven other capable defensemen, he's going in with his regular, hungry mentality. 

"I think we are all here to make the team," Toews said. "Anything can happen and there's a lot of good players here who can take your job. That's what everyone's job is, to take someone's job."

This year, both are up for the taking and tough decisions lay ahead. As far as Trotz is concerned, it's a good problem to have. 

"When there's competition, where there's what I call backpressure, it just makes everybody better," Trotz said. "It makes your decisions a little tougher as a coach and I'd rather have one of those tough decisions than one of those ones where you go 'oh my lord' we have to fill some holes here."

"The best advice I can give a player is look around, know your competition," Trotz added. "You're going to compete and outcompete him every day and if you do that, then you'll take the next step or you're going to keep your job, whichever it may be. Competition anywhere is good and we have some in certain spots." 

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