Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

The New York Islanders face the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday, Oct. 24, as part of the full slate of NHL games called the “Frozen Frenzy” with multiple staggered start times. These two teams rarely face each other, with only two meetings per season, but when they do, one player comes to mind, defenseman Devon Toews, as he was part of a trade that shaped both rosters for years to come.

The Islanders traded Toews in the 2020 offseason to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for second-round draft selections in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft and the 2022 Draft. At the time, the deal didn’t look like a bad one for the Islanders and it looked like it would leave them better off in the long run (there’s an article on this site about the trade, which has since aged poorly). Three years later, the trade looks like one of general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello’s most regrettable decisions.

Devon Toews, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The trade not only became a lopsided one, but it had big implications for the rest of the NHL, as well. The way GMs try to build Cup-contending rosters has been heavily influenced by the move, with key players and positions not only being valued but seen as essential for a great team.

At The Time, A Toews Trade Felt Necessary

The Islanders entered the 2020 offseason coming off a playoff run where they ended up in the Eastern Conference Final and were on the doorstep of winning the Stanley Cup. The problem was that they were pressed against the salary cap and needed to create space to sign restricted free agent (RFA) Mathew Barzal, something they did later on in the offseason. Lamoriello understandably feared that it wouldn’t have been possible to extend Toews, and he needed to trade him when his value was highest. With Noah Dobson moving up in the farm system, looking poised to become a regular on the defense, Toews looked expendable.

Lou Lamoriello, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Hindsight makes everyone look like a genius, and it’s easy to look back and think about what Lamoriello should have done to keep Toews around instead of moving him. That said, he should have traded Nick Leddy in the 2020 offseason and waited at least one more season before dealing Toews. Leddy was another puck-handling defenseman whom the Islanders ultimately traded in the 2021 offseason and have missed since moving on from but losing him wasn’t nearly as consequential. Look at what the two defensemen have played since the trade was made.

Toews Stats (2021-23): 199 games played, 29 goals, 109 assists, 25:04 average ice time, 316 blocked shots, 193 hits, and 19.0 defensive point shares.

Leddy’s Stats (2021-23): 209 games played, seven goals, 71 assists, 21:21 average ice time, 217 blocked shots, 138 hits, and 7.4 defensive point shares.

The move was made, and it helped the Islanders get under the cap. At first, the Toews trade didn’t seem like it would haunt them or hurt the defensive unit. After all, they were a Cup contender in the 2020-21 season, pushing the Tampa Bay Lightning to a seven-game series in the 2021 Semifinal and were led by their defense. Instead, the trade looked like one that would benefit the two teams involved, especially since it catapulted the Avalanche to the top of the Western Conference.

Toews Strengthens the Avalanche Blue Line

Toews has been remarkable with the Avalanche, rounding out the unit as the team’s top left-side defenseman. Cale Makar, a perennial Norris Trophy finalist who won the award in 2022, grabs the spotlight as arguably the best defenseman in the NHL. However, Toews has also added a two-way presence, and his skills on the defensive end of the ice have notably turned the unit into one of the best in the league. Since joining the team, the defense has allowed 2.83 goals per game or fewer in each of the past three seasons.

Related: Grading Lou Lamoriello’s Trades as New York Islanders GM

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The Avalanche not only prevent opponents from finding the back of the net, but they have a high-powered offense fueled by the defense. While Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and a talented forward unit create plenty of the team’s goals, the defensive unit creates turnovers and instantly starts up the offense. The Avalanche are known for playing at a faster pace and gashing opponents with their speed on the rush, and a lot of their speed comes from their ability to effectively move the puck out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone.

Additionally, the Avalanche can create from the point, and they often help open up the offense by doing so. The league has become more offensive-minded, with forwards like MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, and Auston Matthews leading the way, and goals have been up in recent seasons. As a result, it’s pivotal to have a blue line that can do it all and impact the game on both ends of the ice.

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon skates against Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Toews played an integral role in the team’s success, especially in their Stanley Cup run in 2022. The Avalanche overwhelmed the opposition with their ability to only score at will but kickstart the rush with outlet passes and offensive zone entries while also creating scoring chances from the point. Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff’s most valuable player, but Toews also played at a high level in that run, scoring a goal and eight assists while helping eliminate some of the best offenses in the game.

Islanders Lack a Two-Way Presence

The absence of Toews started to show in the 2021-22 season when the Islanders missed the playoffs. They had a great defense but a slow unit that couldn’t move the puck out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone. Additionally, they lacked a scoring presence at the point outside of Dobson, who had a breakout season. Toews scored 13 goals and 44 assists with the Avalanche that season, while the Islanders had a defensive unit that looked like this.

Dobson’s 2021-22 Offensive Stats: 13 goals and 38 assists.

The Rest of the Islanders’ Defense: 19 goals and 90 assists.

To make matters worse, the Islanders’ inability to find a playmaker from the point caused the power play to struggle. The unit was above league average in 2021-22, scoring only 22.12 percent of opportunities, but last season, the power play was hapless, scoring only 15.77 percent of opportunities. A lot of factors contributed to the struggles on the man advantage, but one of the big issues was puckhandling, and they didn’t have a defenseman that could carry it into the offensive zone. Leddy and Toews both played that role when they were with the Islanders, and it’s a position that is difficult to find a replacement for.

Devon Toews, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Recently, the Islanders have started to add younger defensemen to the NHL roster. Sebastian Aho and Samuel Bolduc both skate well and can move the puck effectively out of the defensive zone. However, the Islanders still don’t have a defenseman with the same offensive skills that Toews has.

Toews Impacted How GMs Think

Every team wants to have an elite defenseman, but having a second one as well in the unit goes a long way. The Avalanche already had Makar on their roster, and it appeared they didn’t need another two-way defenseman who could play the same role. However, adding Toews put the unit over the top and made the team as a whole one of the best in the NHL. The Avalanche paid a hefty price to not only acquire Toews but also keep him on the roster, notably signing him to a seven-year contract at the start of the 2022-23 season, but it’s worthwhile considering the impact he has.

The Lightning, the team the Avalanche defeated in the Stanley Cup Final in 2022, were built in a similar manner. Victor Hedman is a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman, but Mikhail Sergachev is another two-way defenseman playing a significant role on their unit.

Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Vegas Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup in 2023 with a great defensive unit. Alex Pietrangelo is the unit’s top two-way player, but Shea Theodore also opens up the offense from the point. In the playoffs, Theodore’s play stood out and separated the Golden Knights from the competition as he scored a goal and 12 assists in the team’s Cup run.

The Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators, two up-and-coming teams in the Eastern Conference are trying to build their defense the same way. The Sabres already had Rasmus Dahlin on their unit when they selected Owen Power in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. Likewise, the Senators had Thomas Chabot playing the top pair role when they acquired Jakob Chychrun at the 2023 trade deadline. It’s not about having a “second-fiddle” defenseman as much as it’s about having a one-two punch to overwhelm opposing teams at the point. As a result, GMs are aggressively looking to add defensemen capable of playing that role.

In a broader sense, the Toews trade was also a reminder that two-way defensemen are essential to win the Stanley Cup. They impact the game in various ways, and in a playoff series, when goals are hard to come by, they put an offense over the top. It’s a cliche that defense wins championships, but the Avalanche are the case in point for why a great defensive unit, one that makes a difference on both ends of the ice, wins championships.

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