Noah Dobson’s and Alexander Romanov’s stalls sit next to each other in the Islanders’ locker room, an obvious nod to the organization’s intentions when they brought in Romanov over the summer.
Play one 23-year-old next to the other, let them develop together and build a second defense pair that can be on Long Island for the long term. Of course, it was never going to be so easy as that, and when Romanov and Dobson were split up on Nov. 21 in Toronto after a start to the season in which they didn’t quite seem on the same page, it was a logical course of action.
What looked at the time like a temporary fix, though, has become permanent. Romanov and Scott Mayfield have turned into the second pair (and while Adam Pelech was out, the first pair); Dobson and Sebastian Aho are the third. At this point, though, the results are no better than they were with the initial configuration, and Dobson is getting the short end of the stick in a way that is negatively impacting his development.
To oversimplify, the Islanders now have a second pair that is defense-focused and a third pair that is offense-focused. Most of the numbers comparing the early-season pairs and the current pairs are similar, but there is a massive difference in how often they’re starting in the offensive zone. That is not bad in isolation — there might be some opponents against which it is preferable — but on net, the Islanders would do better with some balance.
Following last weekend’s loss in Montreal, Isles coach Lane Lambert didn’t sound particularly ready to shake up his bottom two pairs. But given how often he mixed up his forward lines prior to the Bo Horvat trade, a change shouldn’t be ruled out.
“I think that for the most part, they’ve been pretty solid,” Lambert said. “Again, there’s situations, the forwards have to help D, D have to help forwards.”
Aho and Dobson have been completely sheltered, starting 72.97 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone, while Romanov and Mayfield have started just 37.27 percent of their shifts there. It’s understandable that Lambert at times wants to keep Dobson away from trouble. There are question marks on the defensive side of his game whereas Mayfield is sound and trustworthy in his own end.
But the Romanov-Mayfield pair puts together two players who both struggle to transport the puck — at times consigning the Isles to stay in their own end when they’re on the ice. That was an issue in particular against Vancouver last week, but both players have had a subpar few weeks.
This configuration also means limiting Dobson’s minutes at five-on-five. Dobson’s overall time on ice average is only down 25 seconds per game compared to last season, thanks to the power play, but at five-on-five, he’s averaging more than a full minute less.
That is not ideal. Dobson is this team’s best offensive defenseman, and it is not particularly close. In the bigger picture, he’s also a player whom the Islanders need to see develop more than he has this season. After taking a massive step forward under the tutelage of Zdeno Chara and Barry Trotz last season, Dobson hasn’t taken the next one, which would put him in a class with some of the league’s best two-way defensemen. And he’s not going to take it by sitting on the bench.
It’s true that Romanov and Dobson weren’t meshing as intended, but by most advanced stats, the results from the bottom two pairs earlier in the season were similar to what they are now. As you would expect given their deployment, Romanov and Mayfield get slightly less shot volume and Aho and Dobson get slightly more, but that is the biggest difference.
The long-term strategy, unless the Islanders were to add a left-side defenseman better than Romanov, is still to hope he and Dobson turn into the second pair. And some more balance in the lineup would serve them well given how often Romanov and Mayfield have struggled to break the puck out. This is a way to help the Islanders now and to help them in the future.
The playoff math
It looks likely that whichever teams end up occupying the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference will do so with some of the lowest point totals we’ve seen in recent 82-game seasons. FiveThirtyEight currently projects the Penguins and Caps to qualify with 97 and 92 points, respectively — 92 would be the lowest point total for an Eastern Conference playoff team in a full season since the switch to Metropolitan and Atlantic Divisions (the 2012 Senators and Capitals were the last two teams from the East to make it with 92).
With how poorly the Isles have played since the New Year, the struggles of the other contending teams have kept them in the postseason race. But the math still isn’t good, particularly because they have played a league-high 57 games, with every team in the race other than Florida holding games in hand and three teams (Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit) with four fewer games played.
Although Friday’s and Monday’s games against the Penguins are huge, that means the Islanders are, in reality, chasing the Capitals — who have just one game in hand — far more than the Pens. And, yes, they are very much hoping everyone else continues to struggle.
Here is a case study in how Horvat and Mathew Barzal can help each other, from last week’s game against Vancouver. Barzal comes into the zone with no support. Horvat hops over the boards and gets in position to receive a pass, leading to a shot, a regroup and eventually, a goal on the same shift.
Before the Islanders traded for Horvat, that sequence would begin and end with Barzal skating in and looking for support. There is no public stat on how often Barzal has circled the zone looking for a pass, but it is a sight familiar to anyone who has watched him over the years — and one we’ve seen much less since Horvat joined the team.