Today we begin our preview of the Islanders defensive with an overview of Brendan Witt, Radek Martinek, Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais.
As great a signing as Mike Sillinger was for the forward lines, Brendan Witt was just as valuable and set the tone for the club's defense last season. Witt is under contract for the next two seasons. He is not the kind of defender who puts up anything more than marginal offensive numbers, but in the trenches Witt absolutely won games for a club with his physical play, defensive play, shot blocking, intimidation and leadership last season. He also managed to stay healthy for the most part and at times played through injuries.
Witt's game simply put is to set the tone for games, while other players on the club feed off of it. He knows how and when to throw a hit to where the opposition gets frustrated and takes a retaliatory penalty. He knows how to get the opposition's best scoring threats to spots on the ice where it's harder for them to produce and he knows how to get a player off their game. Witt's not going to win any speed contest with anyone and will look bad on occasion in the open ice if a player gets an angle on him while driving to the net, and will take more than his share of bad penalties, but he also knows when to step up and throw a hit that changed a game as Malkin of the Pens found out early last season. He will not get much credit for his shot blocking but will get in front of anything he can and has instincts that cannot be taught,
Islanders are asking a lot of Witt this season. On defense his contribution will be critical to the club's success or failure. With the departure of Hill and Poti whatever chemistry Witt brought to the the unit will be altered. Can he help players like Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais develop a little quicker, will he work as well with Andy Sutton?
Many will focus on Martinek's injuries as the overall theme of his season last year but for those who watched him when healthy that should be the focus because he made major improvements in his game to where he established himself as a defender you want on the ice in the most critical parts of a game. Martinek's best skill is his ability in the transition game, or skating the puck out of the defensive end of the ice. His ability to read a play improved as did his skating and decision making with and without the puck which showed a confidence he did not display in earlier years.
Martink's offensive game did not catch up to his improved defense last season as he still showed a reluctance to shoot, but he does know how to handle a puck from the point and at the very least should provide steady play. He's not a great shot blocker and has no physical game but does know how and when to get into position which helps him win puck possession.
Ted Nolan considered him one of his best defenders last season and with the changes on defense the Islanders in 20070-08 absolutely need a repeat performance in the final year of his contract. Martinek keeps working hard and does not take the easy way out of a play which has lead to some of his injuries, he's going to have to continue to do the same thing. For those who feel he's not durable when he had his broken ankle and was expected out for a month, he came back in a week. He's been the victim of some tough luck on a few injuries where he would get caught in a rut on the ice or hit from behind in a vulnerable position that can happen to any other player.
Looking back at Gervais first full season, many will look at his plus/minus or his turnover against NJ that led to an ot loss as proof he's a limited player. Plus/minus is a very misleading stat and that applies here. Some will note his lack of scoring which he was able to provide to a small degree in 05-06 in a shorter period of games. Some will talk about his injuries which essentially shut him down for a large part of the second half of last season. What few will discuss is what I will discuss and that's the progress Gervais made during last season when he was healthy.
Gervais made strong progression in his game last year that will not reflect in numbers but in steady, strong, smart decision making with and without the puck in the corners as well as in transition where it was tough to tell this was a player in his first full NHL season because of his composure. Ted Nolan noticed and was impressed which is why before he got hurt he played close to an average of twenty minutes a game for a solid month of last season. Gervais not going to run players over but he is going to get position and win the puck, his skating is also very strong as is his shot selection when he decides to use it.
Gervais comes into this camp under some pressure with a numbers game on the roster and perhaps a chance a being traded because he would have to clear waivers to go to the AHL and he no longer belongs in the AHL. But make no mistake about his ability. Gervais has a lot of upside and a very strong overall game which is why he would be attractive to other NHL general managers. What he did in the club's final playoff game where he scored and made a fantastic rush where he almost scored and drew a penalty is just a flash of Gervais upside. Islanders should keep him right where he is and just give him more responsibility because in my estimation he's part of the solution.
2006-07 was a very tough year for Chris Campoli. He sustained an injury late in camp, missed the first two months and found himself with a problem. He had to earn his spot back from a coach who did not see him play over eighty games here in
2005-06 and even found himself playing for Bridgeport. More injuries, the Zhitnik trade and circumstances finally created a chance for Campoli and he did seem far more tentative early on but as he got comfortable and received more minutes he won his coaches trust. He also played through some injuries in the second half but saved his best for the playoffs where he had a strong performance and showed a lot of confidence and upside that we saw in his first year.
Campoli is a very well-rounded player who has good skating skills, solid defensive skills and excellent offensive instincts. He knows when to drive the net on offense or step in from the point to keep a play going or intercept a clearing attempt. He is not shy about stepping up and throwing the body around and can deliver a big hit. One downside to his game is at times he gets a little out of control on the ice and tries to do too much which will lead to mistakes, but this is still a young player with good potential.
Campoli was rewarded with a new three year contract this summer. He cannot be demoted without clearing waivers and no doubt there would be interest in the trade market. On a roster with eight NHL players, he will have to continue to progress and prove to Ted Nolan he can help this club. Good news is he has skills lacking on this defense which are needed and standout. Given no replacement has been found for Poti's play making ability it's fair to say Snow and Nolan are counting on progression from Campoli to off set this loss.
Next up Part II:
Sutton, Meyer, Bergeron, Johnson