Heading into this season many New York Islanders fans had high hopes for Ryan Pulock, who closed out 2017-18 looking like he may be poised to become a top-20 scoring NHL defenseman. While his offensive performance has disappointed through 25 games, he just may be rounding into a more balanced player, capable of facing top opponents at 5v5 while playing regular minutes on the penalty kill.
Entering the season Pulock was one of five NHL defensemen with 125+ all-situations shots-on-goal this 2018 calendar year. What is more, the other four, Brent Burns, Dougie Hamilton, Roman Josi, and Seth Jones, all played 100+ minutes more than he did in 2018.
This season Pulock is 33rd among defensemen, with 53 SOGs, only a little more than half the on-target shots by Josi (102) or Hamilton (97). At times he has struggled to keep his shots on-goal, but even his 112 total attempts only ranks 28th among defensemen this season, after finishing last season 7th for the calendar year.
Pulock tallied 25 points the last 43 games of last season; he has eight the first 25 games this season. His one goal this season is particularly disappointing, after finishing last season with 10 in 68 games.
Note that a lull in goal-scoring isn’t entirely unique for the big-shot defenseman. Shea Weber (6 in 54), P.K. Subban (7 in 81), and Zdeno Chara (9 in 74) each fell back under 10 after first hitting the double-digits in goals over a season. Each of the three then recovered to 10+ goals the next three seasons.
While Pulock has failed to provide exceptional scoring, he is now playing regular shifts on the penalty kill.
Of the regular PK defensemen for the Isles (Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Thomas Hickey, and Ryan) Pulock does lead the four in all types of on-ice shots against rates (CA, FA, SOGs, scoring-chance, and high-danger), but he also may benefit from entering after the initial work by PK1 vs PP1 units. Even so, he is noticeable utilitzing his skating ability, anticipation, and wrist shot to clear pucks the length of the ice when the Islanders are down a man.
Currently Pulock is first among defensemen for 5v5 minutes per-game, second for 5v4, and third for 4v5. Considering more energy is expended on the penalty kill than the power play, Pulock has by far the heaviest workload of any NYI defenseman this season:
In the past five games the Hickey-Pulock pair has faced the toughest opposing forwards at 5v5 for Islanders defensemen. Last game Pulock was on the ice for 61% of Artemi Panarin’s 5v5 play. The four previous games: 44% of Brad Marchand’s, 60% of Alexander Ovechkin’s, 52% of Sebastian Aho’s, and 55% of Taylor Hall’s. This has enabled Leddy and Boychuk to focus less on defending exceptional talent and more on attacking.
Pulock was perhaps most noticeable in the game against Marchand, thwarting the two-time 85-pt forward on multiple occasions. The Islanders didn’t have much opportunity to attack with Pulock on the ice, as he finished with no 5v5 SOGs and 0.3 on-ice expected goals, but he helped keep one of the game’s top talents relatively quiet while matched up with Marchand two minutes more than Leddy’s pair that game.
As we can see from the purple cells below, Pulock hasn’t faced top forwards the past five games quite as much as Letang, but it has been comparable to Provorov’s past five games. (Matthews was injured when Jones and Provorov each faced Leafs…. Jones played mostly Eric Staal’s line, rather than Koivu’s line, when CBJ faced MIN’s 1a/1b top-6— and Lee’s line instead of Barzal’s.)
The green cells show expected goals-for % for each defenseman each game, based on quality and quantity of shots. This is for the entire game of 5v5 for each defenseman, including minutes against other forward units. It is intended only to show that the Islanders did okay with Pulock on the ice the past five games at 5v5, even with Hickey-Pulock facing top competition more than half of their TOI.
The “average” column for the chart above doesn’t mathematically represent results from the five games equally, rather it is an accumulation. If one game was higher-event (particularly high-danger chances), it will factor in more heavily to the average than a lower-event game.
Does this mean that Ryan Pulock is all of a sudden a quality first-pair all-situations defenseman? I wouldn’t go that far. His play has been encouraging of late after finishing last season strong, but he has a ways to go before I will feel comfortable seeing him on the ice against the best forwards in the league for the majority of his 5v5 minutes. In the mean time he may be the best option as a right defenseman, as Boychuk takes on a more manageable role.
If the Hickey-Pulock pair can even perform decently against top competition, that frees up the other four defensemen (currently Leddy, Boychuk, Pelech, and Mayfield) to attack at 5v5. In a round-about way that is a very significant offensive contribution from Pulock.