Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Can the Isles Survive without Calvin de Haan?

The casual hockey fan may not know who Calvin de Haan is, or even that it's a small "d" not a big "D" in his last name, but that doesn't make dealing with the fact that the Islanders may have lost de Haan for the season when he injured his shoulder in overtime of Saturday's 4-3 win over the Kings any easier.

The Islanders have been surviving with a very green and unproven bottom four on their blue line all season long, and the biggest reason that they have been able to do that is de Haan.

The 26-year-old Ontario native is second on the team in 5-on-5 ice time and he has been a stabilizing force for rookie Adam Pelech on the team's second pair. The two left-handers have played 312 minutes together, and during their minutes the Islanders have scored 17 goals and allowed 15 at 5-on-5.

Rookie Scott Mayfield has also benefitted from de Haan's presence and the pair have played just over 82 minutes together and managed a 5-on-5 Corsi Percentage of 56.6 percent (7 goals for and 3 against). There's a lot to be said for de Haan's veteran presence and his poise this season. He doesn't stand out as an offensive player, but he's gotten better with each season. de Haan's points per 60 (1.18), assists per 60 (1.06) and primary assists per 60 (.59) are all higher than they've ever been through 33 games this season.

The Islanders have regularly been running out three virtual rookies on the blue line (only Pulock is an actual rookie but Mayfield and Pelech are very green and had never played a full season before this year), and they will have to keep doing that for the remainder of the season without one of their key veterans to lead the way.

It won't be easy.

12 points may not be enough to make jaws drop, but de Haan is currently a plus-11 while playing a key role in facilitating the development of 23-year-old Pelech. So not only are the Isles losing de Haan, there also forced to find a new partner that can keep Pelech on an upward trajectory from a development perspective. Much like de Haan, Pelech's performance has been under the radar in 2017, but he's come along nicely compared to where he was last year. His 11 points in 29 games are already one more than he had in 44 last year, and he seems more capable of handling the pace of the game this season.

It's easy to panic but in reality the Islanders should be able to survive without de Haan. And according to head coach Doug Weight, de Haan he may not be out as long as was first suspected.

If de Haan is out for a long period the Islanders will at least get a glimpse of what the team's blue line looks like without him (we'll call this a bleak silver lining). His one-year, $3.3 million deal means he's a free agent at the end of the season. The Islanders can move on from de Haan this summer if they wish, or they can try to sign him at a decent price due to his injury-plagued walk year.

What it will take to sign de Haan long-term is another story for another day, but most believe he will be due $4 million or more. In the meantime the team desperately needs Pulock, Pelech and Mayfield to continue to be better. Each player has shown signs that they are ready to be quality full-time NHL defensemen, but each has shown their weaknesses as well. Mayfield looks like an AHL defenseman sometimes, but he's managed to make up for a lack of footspeed and offensive creativity with a really diligent defensive game and good physicality. Pelech looks like a keeper and a potential top four defenseman but he'll need to keep working on his skating and decision-making. Pulock has been far too timid for his skillset, but has started to come out of his shell of late. He's been more physical and has shown some puck poise in the offensive zone. Five points and a minus-6 in 20 games isn't much to write home about, but Pulock has been better of late as he has developed comfort.

Bottom line? It's going to be a bumpy ride for the Islanders defense this winter without de Haan. New York has allowed 67 5-on-5 goals against already this season, which ranks them 25th in the NHL. As things get tighter down the stretch the Islanders will need to win a few 2-1 and 3-2 games and it's not clear if they have the personnel to get that done (the fact that neither Jaroslav Halak nor Thomas Greiss is playing great will put extra pressure on the D).

Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuck are a premier top pair, but the bottom four will be tested.

Will we see a Pulock-Pelech pairing emerge? They pair have developed some chemistry and have a 56.31 5-on-5 Corsi Percentage in just under 54 minutes. If so the Isles will roll two of Thomas Hickey, Dennis Seidenberg and Mayfield to form the other pair.

It doesn't inspire a lot of confidence but both Hickey and Seidenberg have a lot of experience and can mentor Mayfield along.

If all else fails Devon Toews and Sebastian Aho are ranked No.4 and No.5 in scoring by defenseman in the AHL. Is either of them ready for the step up? Might be a good time to find out.

It's not an ideal situation for the Islanders, given that three players in their current top six have under 100 games on their NHL resume.

No matter what happens with Toews and Aho in Bridgeport, one thing has become clear over the course of the Islanders first 33 games: The defense has proven to be a work in progress, and quite frankly, not good enough to make this team a legitimate Cup contender. It's been great to watch Pelech, Pulock and Mayfield come along slowly, and Doug Weight has done a good job at easing their development. But it's sink or swim time in the brutal Metropolitan Division and the Islanders should be actively searching for a second-pair defender that could be a long-term fit. I'm not saying make a desperate move, but by all means GM Garth Snow better be kicking some tires while de Haan's shoulder heals. If things start to go south without de Haan a move might have to be made.

Until then, Islanders fans should cross their fingers and hope that these young defensemen are ready to take the next step.