On Tuesday, the New York Islanders committed long-term to an important piece of their defence corps. No, not Johnny Boychuk: pending restricted free agent Nick Leddy.
At first glance, that’s a whole pile of money for a 23-year-old defenceman, and no wonder the Chicago Blackhawks decided to trade him on down the line, because there is no way they could have squeezed that into the books next season. At second glance, however, but it’s probably money well spent.
It’s also in keeping with the way the New York Islanders operate. A team that has been burned by long-term contracts in the past (Alexei Yashin and Rick DiPietro are both still being paid by the team) hasn’t stopped employing them, but it has gotten more judicious with regard to their use. Leddy’s a pretty good bet in that regard because he’s already a proven NHL talent and yet simultaneously he is still literally years away from the prime of his career.
Certainly the strategy has paid dividends for New York, as a quick glance at NHL Numbers makes clear. Leddy joins John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Travis Hamonic as young players signed for at least three more years after this one. The combined annual bill for that quartet is just a shade over $18 million, which is pretty reasonable for a franchise centre, two top-three defencemen and a winger with 30 points in 49 games this season.
There have been plenty of other examples along the way, too. Kyle Okposo is in the fourth year of a five-season deal with a $2.8 million cap hit. Frans Nielsen is in the third year of a four-year deal that pays him even less, a deal he signed after completing a previous four-year deal with a $525,000 cap hit which made him probably the best bargain player in the NHL. A team willing to risk term can gain a lot, as long as it’s risking it on a solid player.
Leddy is such a player.
Before getting into his good points, we should acknowledge his limitations. He is undersized for his position, listed at just 6’0" and 194 pounds. The Islanders don’t rely on him in situations where his lack of size could be a major impediment, such as the penalty kill, and neither did the Blackhawks before them. He is playing more than 20 minutes per night, but at even-strength he’s a second-pair option, with Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan (de Haan has two years left after this one at less than a $2 million cap hit) taking the lead role. Despite his offensive reputation, he’s never cracked 40 points.
So one way of looking at this is that New York just spent $5.5 million a season on a small, second-pairing offensive defenceman who really doesn’t score that much and wasn’t even an unrestricted free agent. Only a crazy person would characterize the deal that way, but it’s nice to get the negatives out of the way before we get to Leddy’s good points.
Leddy is what we might classify as a puck possession defenceman. He’s highly mobile, with excellent top-end speed and the ability to skate the puck out of danger. He has good playmaking vision and makes an outlet pass with the best of them. He combines those tools with poise. He can make plays under pressure and doesn’t panic when the puck arrives in his area suddenly.
Nor is he inept defensively. Leddy has good two-way instincts, and while not overly physical, he doesn’t shy away from contact. His skating allows him to recover from situations which would catch other defencemen flat-footed. His mobility makes it tough to beat him one-on-one.
Marry those skills together and one ends up with the kind of defenceman who has helped his team post better shot rates with him on the ice than off it for four years running. His work in Chicago was impressive, because the Blackhawks are such a good team. Even in a sheltered role, a guy who can out-perform the team average is worth taking seriously.
Leddy‘s numbers (with Boychuk, admittedly) in New York are even more impressive. The Isles have a 35-24 edge in shots in an average hour of even-strength play when he’s on the ice. That gap fades to a 31-29 edge when he isn’t. The goal numbers are at least as spectacular, with the Islanders scoring a goal per hour more than the opposition with Leddy on the ice but being only a break-even team with him off it.
Leddy’s offensive game is also better than it looks at first glance. Power-play scoring drives offensive numbers for defencemen and Leddy has spent the lion’s share of his career playing behind one of the best in the game in Duncan Keith, which means he hasn’t necessarily had the opportunity to show his full worth.
But when we look at even-strength scoring, we see something remarkable. No defenceman in the NHL has managed to score at least one point per hour at even-strength over each of the last four seasons, but Leddy is one of just seven full-time defencemen to do it three times. Others on the list include Keith, Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang, and that isn’t bad company.
In Leddy, the Islanders get a strong offensive defenceman who has always made his teams better when he’s on the ice, a player who at 23 is already very good and still has plenty of room to grow. He joins the 23-year-old de Haan and 24-year-old Hamonic as key young defencemen locked up for a long time, and they join a long list of young skaters whose rights New York owns long-term, some of whom are already signed for years to come.
It took the Islanders a long time to build the foundation of young players who are now leading the team to great success. It’s clear that hasn’t been lost on the organization, which is now doing all it can to keep those players in the fold for the foreseeable future.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.