Isles Defense Marred in New Faces
by: Patrick Hickey, Jr. | Senior Writer - NY Sports Day | Sunday, August 19, 2007

Before injuries to both Rick DiPietro and Radek Martinek last season, the Isles defense was among the very best in the NHL. Down the stretch leading to the playoffs however, despite the solid play of Tom Poti, Sean Hill and Brendan Witt, it looked like the defense needed a sparkplug. While the late season acquisition of Marc-Andre Bergeron proved to be a huge one for the Isles that bolstered the teamís defensive core, the team was still eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Buffalo Sabres.

When the season was over, the Isles hoped to keep Poti, who was coming off one of the best seasons of his NHL career and were looking for a solid replacement for the aging Hill, who was also suspended for testing positive for performance enhancers at the end of the season. Unable to keep Poti, who signed a big money deal with the Capitals, the Isles first made a few depth signings, inking former Phoenix second-round pick Matthew Spiller and former Blue Jacket Aaron Johnson to minor league contracts and signed 2006 sixth round pick Andrew MacDonald to a three-year entry contract.

While the deals werenít exactly what many Isles fans were looking for, the Isles now have three young and hungry D-men that each give them something different. At 6í5Ē and 233 pounds, Spiller is a big body that has no problem blocking shots and getting in peoples faces. A few years away from being an NHL regular, Spiller has the potential to be a steady stay at home defenseman once he gets a little more mobile.

Playing in 61 games for the depleted Blue Jackets last season, Johnson looks to be the first D-man called up if Freddy Meyer canít cut it as the teamís seventh defenseman or if Martinek returns to his injury prone ways of the past. Possessing a solid shot from the point and keen passing ability, Johnson may find himself on the point of the Islanders power play sometime in the season. However, his defensive ability is far from solid, making him too much of a liability right now and someone that could definitely benefit from time in the minors to brush up on his defense.

Signed a few months back, MacDonald has better offensive ability than Johnson, but lacks the size of Spiller, making him an interesting option sometime during the season. Averaging 35 points a season in juniors, MacDonald, who is also a solid skater, would be a perfect match on defense for someone like Brendan Witt, who takes the body and doesnít cover as much ground as he used to. For the time being however, MacDonald will be in Bridgeport, where he will obviously be logging serious minutes on special teams before an eventual cup of coffee with the Isles sometime during the season.

However, despite the signings of Spiller, Johnson and MacDonald, the biggest signing the team made on defense this offseason was that of Andy Sutton. At 6í6Ē and 245 pounds, Sutton gives the Isles the size and strength at defense that they needed to make up for the loss of Hill. While Sutton isnít nearly as offensive-minded as Hill was, he has no problems blocking shots or taking the body and is much younger, making many Isles fans feel like heís an upgrade from Hill.

With Sutton and Witt taking the body for the Islanders on defense, the team will still need solid seasons from youngsters Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais, who will have to prove after a few years in the organization that theyíre ready to be real contributors. In addition, Bergeron will have to make sure that his 21 points in 23 games with the Isles last season was no fluke, while Radek Martinek will have to make a hasty return from a leg injury that ended his season last year.

If Martinek and Bergeron can provide offense on the power play and Witt and Sutton provide the veteran leadership needed to push Campoli and Gervais to the next level, the Isles should have more than enough depth on defense. However, if Witt and Sutton canít keep up with the Crosbyís and Ovechinís of the NHL and Martinek gets injured again, expect a long season for the Isles on defense.