There's no question that the Islanders blueline made significant strides this season. The Isles underwent a nearly unprecedented turnaround of allowing the fewest goals-per-game (2.33) in the NHL, one year after allowing the most (3.57).
"You look at the back end, the defense I didn't think it was going to be a strength of the hockey team based on trying to evaluate the previous year," Barry Trotz noted when discussing positive takeaways from the season. "They didn't make any excuses. They said they were going to make the playoffs and become a good team. The turnaround in terms of goals against is unprecedented. It hasn't been done in 100 years."
The enactment of Trotz's structured and disciplined culture was a helpful boost, but the development of the Isles homegrown defenseman - Scott Mayfield, Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech and Devon Toews - was also a significant factor.
Video: VGK@NYI: Pelech roofs wrist shot over Fleury
The foursome were all drafted by the Islanders between 2011-14 and all have developed through the farm system with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The development paid off for the Isles this season, as all four had career-best seasons, and showcased their abilities as solid, NHL-caliber blueliners.
"Your foundation is always going to be to draft," Trotz said. "Your success as an organization is always going to be to draft and then you supplement from other resources. The [Islanders] defense is going to be OK for a while. The teams that draft well, that develop well are always going to have success. That's undeniable in this league. There's some people who have made the transition from prospect to pro. That's what you're seeing in the evolution of [Pelech, Pulock, Toews, Mayfield]."
Mayfield, the oldest of the bunch at 26, recorded 19 points (4G, 15A) through 79 games in the regular season and was regularly paired with Toews in the second half of the season. Mayfield made big strides, going from a healthy scratch in the season opener to a reliable physical presence and the team's most-used penalty killer (2:19 TOI/GP). He set career-highs in points, but also came up with a few highlights on the back end, pulling a puck off the line in Vancouver, as well as a big block late in Game 4 vs Pittsburgh.
Video: NYI@PIT, Gm4: Mayfield plays goalie, protects lead
Pelech, the Islanders' third-round pick (65th overall) in 2012, became a mainstay during the 2016-17 season, but blossomed in 2018-19. Pelech had a career-high 21 points (5G, 16A) and grew into his own as the season wore on, developing a "firmness" to his game according to Trotz. A lot was asked of Pelech this season, as he was paired with Pulock, and he upped his game accordingly.
Pulock, the 15th-overall pick in 2013, took another step forward in his second full year at the NHL level. The Dauphin, Manitoba native led Islanders defensemen with 37 points (9G, 28A) in 82 games of the regular season, while adding a new defensive dimension to his game. He led the Islanders in TOI (22:22), played in all situations and faced off in top matchups on a nightly basis alongside Pelech.
As a duo, Pulock and Pelech evolved into the Isles shutdown pair and did a terrific job in the first round against Pittsburgh's top line, namely holding Sidney Crosby in check. Through four games, the tandem held Crosby, who reached 100-points during the regular season for the sixth time in his career, to just one assist. Penguins leading goal scorer Jake Guentzel was also held to one goal in the series.
Video: CBJ@NYI: Pulock hammers home slap shot
This progress wasn't lost on Pulock, or the fact that he, Pelech and Mayfield are hitting their stride at the same time. He acknowledged the importance of the joint camaraderie and support the Isles blueline shared.
"We went through the minors together for a few years and we came in here at the same time," Pulock said. "Just to see the growth in them and myself over those years just to get us to where we are now, I think is pretty special. Obviously, Toews has come right in and fit in with his play. He's going to be an elite player in this league, he already is. It's important to have that stability where you have those guys that are younger and can be around here for years to come."
Toews, the sole rookie of the group, was a compliment and impactful addition to the Islanders blue line. Toews played three seasons for Quinnipiac University - and was part of the 2016 national runner-up team - and then spent another three seasons with the Sound Tigers before making his NHL debut, which was partly delayed by injuries. That extra time only allowed Toews to overbake by the time he made his debut in Dallas, stepping in for the injured Thomas Hickey two days before Christmas.
Toews immediately fit in and played his way into a regular spot utilizing his speed and puck-moving ability. Since his debut, Trotz frequently praised the rookie for his poise and composure and played Toews on the Islanders top power play down the stretch and into the postseason, speaking to his quick growth.
Video: NYI@CAR, Gm3: Toews nets wrister from point for PPG
Toews credited his time in Bridgeport for allowing him to thrive once he got the call to the Islanders.
"They do such a good job of making it a seamless transition from Bridgeport to here," Toews said. "The coaching staff on both ends communicate and make it a lot easier for me to go from there and feel comfortable coming here as well...The systems were obviously new for a lot of us just in the way we were preparing and the structure. I think [coach Brent Thompson] and them did a good job in preparing me down [in Bridgeport]. It helped me in the transition."
The Islanders blueline as a whole proved themselves to be a dominant presence and gained crucial experience this season that should aid them in the coming years. Mayfield, Pelech, Pulock and Toews are all in their mid-20s and all four are signed through next season and at their age have the potential to be part of the core for some time to come.
"We've got some young guys on the back end," Pulock said. "We've got some leaders that have helped us grow as players. I think now those pieces are in place. It's up to us to continue to take steps forward and to turn into one of those d-cores that people are talking about."