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Isles Showing Versatility with Changing Roles

How the Isles have benefitted from player's flexibility within the lineup

by Sasha Kandrach KandrachSasha /

Within the Islanders detailed structure, there are rarely any blurred lines. Each player is tasked with his own objective and a designated role that they're responsible for.

It's a pretty straight forward process, but is dependent on the players' execution. Any oversight from the details has enough influence to deviate the team from the meticulous style of play that has become their Islander identity.  

"When you trust the process it's just staying to your identity," Head Coach Barry Trotz said. "Don't try to be somebody you're not. Don't try to do something that's outside of our protocol system. There are certain things that are black and white. There's no debate. There's no discussion; it's black or white. There are parts of every team's games, ours included, where there's some grey area. Just make sure the black and white areas aren't grey and the grey areas we'll get through it as a group. You trust in that process of hockey instincts. Sometimes you've just got to play hockey...I think when we're playing poorly the black and white is grey for us." 

Having now reached the all-star break, the unofficial halfway point of the season, the Islanders have done some self-assessing. They reflect upon their franchise-record, 17-game point streak (15-0-2), which ran from Oct. 12 to Nov. 26, as the model of that consistency. Since Dec. 2, the Islanders have gone 14-10-3, which still has them in the upper third of the league, but with the second leg of the season underway, they're searching for more consistency in their game.  

"The success we have is from our details," Ryan Pulock said. "We're very detailed in every aspect of our game and that gives us a lot of opportunity to win every night even if maybe we were not at our best. I think when we were going through that stretch [17-game point streak], we were just finding different ways by sticking to our game plan, by sticking to those details. Obviously, you're going to have stretches when you get away from it. The important part is finding that again." 

The Isles had their fair share of adversity this season with various injuries, dry spells and missed opportunities, as a result a few players have had to fluctuate their nightly roles. Most recently, Pulock's defensive partner Adam Pelech suffered an Achilles Tendon injury that will sideline him for the rest of the regular season. As a result, Pulock has seen increased ice time and has worked to establish some chemistry with his new partner, Nick Leddy.  

"It's what you want as a player; you want that ice time," Pulock said. "I think I thrive with that ice time. The more I play the better I feel out there. Every guy in here is going to have to step up their game and fill that void with Adam out of the lineup."

For Pulock, changing partners means changing roles a little bit as well. Pelech's steady, stay-at-home play meant Pulock could play a more offensive role, but with Leddy's end-to-end rushing ability, Pulock sometimes is the one who hangs back. Not that it bothers the 25-year-old, who has grown the defensive side of his game over the past year and change. 

"Coming into this year I was just trying to build off of last year," Pulock said. "I think defensively, me and [Pelech] did a really good job last year especially down the stretch. Coming into this year the plan was to build off of that and try and create more offensively. I think Adam and I did a good job going against some top lines. Our whole d-core has really stepped up."

With Cal Clutterbuck out indefinitely, Barry Trotz has shuffled his forward lines and PK pairs regularly. That means a lot of changing roles for guys like Tom Kuhnahckl, but his defensive presence has offered some consistency since making his return to the lineup on Dec. 19. Kuhnhackl was out for six weeks with a lower-body injury he suffered on Oct. 25.

"That injury came at a bad time," Kuhnhackl said. "Going down to Bridgeport, playing those games after being out for six weeks was really good for me. Just playing those minutes, being put in different situations and just getting your confidence back was really good for me. Finding my game, I think that was big for me."

Upon his return, the winger saw action on the wing, alongside Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee , next to Casey Cizikas, paired with Leo Komarov and seemingly everywhere in between. Regardless if he was logging minutes in a top-six role or playing on one of the Isles checking lines, Kuhnhackl focused on playing his game and making an impact. 

"At the end of the day it doesn't matter what line you're on," Kuhnhackl said. "You have a style of game that you want to bring every night. You want to do that every night as good as you can. If you're on the third line, first line, fourth line, PK, power play, whatever it is, you always have to compete. You always have to work hard and bring your A game, so you always have a good chance to win." 

The German native already has three goals and three assists through 23 games and scored in back-to-back contests on Dec. 29 against Minnesota and Dec. 31 against Washington. 

Video: NYI@WSH: Kuhnhackl sneaks wrist shot in top shelf

"Now, I'm just trying to help the team as much as possible," Kuhnhackl said. "Whether that's on the PK, forechecking, creating turnovers. Getting on the scoresheet helps as well too."

While his role has fluctuated, the German winger has tried to find consistency in what he can control.  

"Good things are going to happen, bad things are going to happen throughout a game," Kuhnhackl said. "There's going to be a bad call or a bad bounce, but you've just got to stick to your game and be positive and stick to your game plan. Whatever happens you just have to stay positive and stick within your structure.  

For Derick Brassard, who is in his first season with the Isles systems, the 13-year NHL veteran understands the nuances and grind of an 82-game regular season. Brassard has spent nearly his entire career playing down the middle, but during stretches this season has played - and found success - on the wing. 

The decision to move Brassard to the wing came early on in the season as the Hull, Quebec native was placed alongside Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier. It paid off almost immediately, as Brassard rattled off a five-game goal-streak from Oct. 24 to Nov. 2.

"Earlier in the year it was just telling him that he looks really comfortable on the wing," Trotz said. He seems freer offensively. So, I moved him back and forth. The great thing about it is they've both played center now for bits and pieces of the year."

Brassard has since fluctuated between wing and center but understands how to implement his game in either of those positions and the slightly difference in roles. When playing at center, he's occupying the third line usually with varying wingers playing more of an energetic, forechecking style, but has the defensive responsibilities down the middle and taking faceoffs (Brassard leads the Isles with a 58.4 face-off win percentage). When playing on the wing, he's typically logging top-six minutes and looking to create more dynamic chances on offense. 

"When I play center, I've played maybe a little less minutes, but my minutes are as important if I play on the wing," Brassard said. "I maybe get four or five minutes there [on the wing] a game. It's a different job for me starting with the faceoffs. As a winger you still have to help out, but as a centerman you have to take pride of winning faceoffs, so you don't have to chase for the entire shift. The jobs are different." 

Whether he's in a top-six spot on the right wing or centering the Islanders third line, Brassard has bought into performing what is asked of him and his assigned role for that day.  

"There's always ups and downs for every player," Brassard said. "It's a long season. It's the same thing for the team. We hit a stretch of 17 games with a point and now the last few weeks we haven't been bad, it's just been win some, lose some, win some lose some - kind of up and down. Now, it's the midpoint of the season. The most important stretch is coming up. The most important time of year is coming up, so everyone has to step up their game." 

The Isles currently sit in third place in the Metro Division, three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins with a record of 29-15-5 and 63 points. As of late, the Islanders have flip-flopped with the Penguins between second and third place of the Metropo and the race will only get tighter as the season goes on. The Isles know how crucial every point is from here on out and how consistency can leverage results.  

"It's just going to be important here in the second half of the year to be prepared to be at our best every night," Pulock said. "If you look at our division, everything is so tight. Every team is fighting for playoff spots. You can't afford to go on those streaks where you're not at your best."

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