Reinforcements on the way for New York Islanders

The New York Islanders have been toiling away for the past month, doggedly trying to erase an ugly start to the 2013-14 season. It’s been an arduous journey back to .500 – and four more wins still stand in the way – but the load on their shoulders is soon to be lightened.

Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky returns to action Monday night against the Bruins, after missing more than three months with a concussion. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov will be suiting up as well, for the first time since January 6 – he is the likely starter on Wednesday against the Rangers. And Travis Hamonic, the clear-cut number one defenseman for the Isles, is back on skates and leaving his concussion behind him.

More hands make lighter work. And most of the work, not coincidentally, needs to be done in the defensive end of the rink.

The Islanders might be winning, but don’t let the results fool you. Even on their best days, Kevin Poulin and Co. are a porous bunch. The team’s finest run of play this season has come over the past 15 games, and the Isles, in mind-bending fashion, have still allowed more than three goals per game across this span. (What a tribute to the offense.)

If Evgeni Nabokov can play the way he did last season, the Islanders stand to benefit immensely.

In fact, the Islanders’ current 10-4-1 stretch has actually seen them slip in team defense. After particularly permeable play last week, when the Isles surrendered 16 goals over four games, they tumbled to 29th in the NHL in goals against per game, at 3.24. That they managed to eek out a 2-1-1 record is, again, a shining testament to their ability to score.

When the Islanders have scored less than three goals this year, they are 2-16-7. In other words, they have won just two times out of 25 (!!!) when failing to score more than twice. It’s reasonable, of course, for a team to have a losing record under this condition, but the Islanders are in a pervious league of their own with numbers like that.

The qualifying statement to all this is that the Islanders aren’t expected to be a defensively stiff team. They made that much clear last season when they qualified for the playoffs despite finishing in the bottom third of the league in goals against. This is a run-and-gun team down to its core, more inclined to win games 5-3 than 2-1.

Last season, they found a sustainable balance between offense and defense and the “system” worked. But it’s a tenuous line. Just ask the 2012-13 Philadelphia Flyers, whose high-flying offense crashed to the ground, leaving the team in 4th place in the old Atlantic Division. This season, the Islanders have shown us what happens when the other engine fails, as defensive struggles have been too much (so far) for the offense to overcome.

The reinforcements will absolutely help. And it’s not as if the Islanders need to start emulating the Los Angeles Kings by stifling the opposition. This team can survive, clearly, without epitomizing a model defense. The improvements they need to make are marginable, at most, and the players returning represent the perfect solution.

Nabokov, for one, can just about lie down in the crease and stack his pads for sixty minutes and provide the same kind of service as interim starter Poulin. Over 27 games this season, Poulin has posted a 3.16 goals against average and .894 save percentage, numbers that rank 43rd and 44th, respectively, out of 46 qualifying goalies.

(All of this really, really makes you wonder just how good the Isles could be right now if GM Mike Millbury hadn’t traded away Roberto Luongo in 2000 to clear space for first overall pick Rick DiPietro. If Millbury had held on to Luongo and drafted, oh, I don’t know, literally anyone else, this team’s fatal flaw would be an obvious strength.)

To be fair to Poulin, Nabokov hasn’t exactly been a brick wall this season either. His peripherals are only slightly better – 2.88 GAA, .905 SV% – and his winning percentage is about the same. So the Isles will need their veteran netminder to pick up his play upon his return, but not by much.

Last season, Nabokov provided decidedly average cover between the pipes – ranking right in the statistical middle with a goals against average of 2.50 and save percentage of .910 – and finished the year as one of the league leaders in wins. If he can shave off a goal here and a goal there, the offense will take care of the rest.

Travis Hamonic, who should return soon, will make an immediate difference on defense.

Visnovsky will help fortify things defensively, as well. He’s a minutes-eater for the Islanders, and a career plus player. In 12 NHL seasons, Visnovsky has finished with a minus rating just three times; his +12 mark last year was tops on the team.

His presence will be felt most though on the power play, where the Islanders, uncharacteristically, have struggled this season. Visnovsky quarterbacks the extra man unit for the Isles, and the whole operation has looked out of sync without him. As well as Andrew McDonald has played so far, he has looked a bit over his head in playing Visnovsky’s part on the power play. Islander fans will be happy to see Visnovsky, not McDonald, leading the rush up ice.

As for Hamonic, it’s hard to say when exactly he’ll be back. There’s no hard timetable yet on his return, but the good news is he’s cleared the necessary testing to get back on the ice. The Islanders, of course, will be careful not to rush him back into action, though it’d be hard to blame them for doing so.

The 23-year-old defenseman is a true difference-maker, even if his offensive game still leaves something to be desired. A terrific skater and confident puck handler, Hamonic is to the Islanders what Ryan McDonagh is to the Rangers. The defensive corps will be noticeably stronger the moment he slides back into the lineup.

These are all good signs for the Islanders. But perhaps most promising of all is that the team, more or less, survived without three of its most important players. As they welcome them back, they can all breathe a sigh of relief and hand some of this heavy load to the guys back in tow.

Or, if they truly want to get back in the race, they can tell Nabokov, Visnovsky and Hamonic hey, we got this. Just grab something else. (“The defense,” Tavares might suggest, beneath a freight of 23 goals and 41 assists.) For if the returning trio can supplement what’s already beginning to happen, the Islanders can make a serious push up this mountain.