Boychuk injury creates challenges, opportunities for Islanders

What happens when you take a team allowing almost four goals per game, and put one of its best defenders on injured reserve? This is no Twilight Zone/Black Mirror-esque sadistic nightmare, its just what the New York Islanders call ‘Thursday.” The team announced that Johnny Boychuk is week to week with a lower body injury, and is expected to miss time until at least early 2018.

With Calvin de Haan already sidelined for the rest of the season, losing Boychuk is suboptimal for an Islanders defense that is already held together by duct tape and string as is. The Isles have allowed a league worst 3.46 goals per game this season, and while a lot of the struggles fall on the shoulders of Thomas Greiss, their defensive corps now seriously lacks a clear number two behind Nick Leddy. Without de Haan and now Boychuk, their blue line consists of a Norris dark horse, a few talented prospects, and spare parts. Sebastian Aho (no, not that one) was called up to the club in a corresponding move, but it remains to be seen which of the former two groups he falls into.

It’s hard to overstate the struggles of the Islanders defense this season. The loss of Boychuk leaves Ryan Pulock as the lone defenseman on the roster with an even strength corsi relative percentage over one. Boychuk leaves an already weak, but improving penalty kill without one of its key members, and as long as he’s out they’ll struggle to fill three defensive pairings with truly capable players. They’d struggled at it with him healthy anyway.

Aho will not immediately slide into Boychuk’s spot, but the Isles will likely use this as a chance to see what the Swedish defender has to offer. The 21-year-old Aho spent three seasons in the SHL, steadily improving each season after debuting at 17 in the highly competitive pro league. By his final season in Sweden, Aho posted 30 points in 50 games, third most among defenseman and significantly more than anyone in his age group. The two defenseman that outscored him were in their late 20s and had spent time in the AHL, and no other blue liner under the age of 25 touched 20 points.

After impressing in Sweden, Aho has continued his strong play in Bridgeport. His 20 points rank sixth among all defensemen in the league, his nine goals place him second, and he leads all rookie d-men in scoring. His tremendous offensive upside no doubt played a part in his call up, but he’s still a bit undersized at 5-foot-10, and considering NHL scouts’ bias for a “prototype” 6-foot-2 defenseman, its no wonder he’s flown under the radar. What we know for sure is that he’s excelled at every level, and now he’ll get his first taste of the NHL.

What we do know for sure, however, is that Ryan Pulock will see his ice time increase. The former 2013 first round pick has seen limited ice time in the NHL, appearing in just 39 games scattered across a few seasons. Despite a strong showing this year, Pulock has been scratched in a third of the Isles games, often in favor of Dennis Seidenberg, a great locker room presence who has struggled to put it together on the ice this season. As a prospect, Pulock was always touted as an offensive juggernaut. He stayed true to form in the AHL last season, recording 15 goals and 46 points in 55 games. With the Isles, though, he’s settled in as a capable defender while struggling to find his form offensively.

Pulock leads Islander defensemen in even strength corsi relative, and corsi against per 60. He’s one of their better shot suppresors, and helps drive the offense considerably even if he’s not yet contributing on the scoresheet the way many had hoped. But when a prospect who excelled offensively with defensive questions in the AHL transitions into the NHL with smooth defense and shaky offense, it stands to reason that he’s developing nicely and the offense will come. Pulock getting nightly minutes is a great thing for the Islanders moving forward.

Evaluating Pulock and Aho while Boychuk recovers also allows the Islanders to really see what they have on the blue line as the trade deadline creeps closer. Logically, with draft picks and prospects stockpiled, the Isles should be in the market for a defenseman down the stretch, especially with names like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Erik Karlsson rumored to be on the market come February. In the next few weeks, they’ll see how desperate that need for another top four blue liner is, or if they’re confident enough to stand pat. Obviously both would require quite the package, but if the Isles see their defense crumble in the next few weeks, Garth Snow might finally deem it necessary to improve his defense in a big way.

The Islanders will struggle to fill a hole on an already weak defense without Johnny Boychuk, but these next few weeks give them a chance to take stock of their defense as a whole with enough time to make a move before the deadline if necessary. Add that to Pulock and Aho getting a fair shot to earn ice time, and there’s enough here to grit my teeth and stomach the loss of Boychuk for the time being. That is, until Dennis Seidenberg plays every night again.

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