Aucoin a rock on the Island

NEW YORK -- New York Islanders defenseman Adrian Aucoin doesn't attract too much attention. He just plays.

And plays ...

... and plays.

And with little fanfare -- and even less league-wide notice -- Aucoin has quietly become one of the game's steadiest defensemen. He has been so reliable since arriving on Long Island in 2001 the Islanders hate to take him off the ice. Again this season, just like the previous two campaigns, Aucoin leads the Islanders in ice time.

"I love to play as many minutes as I can get," said Aucoin, who ranks fifth in the league behind Sergei Gonchar, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Sergei Zubov with an average of 26:12 through 43 games. "For me, the more I play, the more I feel the puck and the better I feel out there."

The Ottawa native, who spent one season at Boston University before joining the Canadian national team in 1992, feels the extra duty keeps him focused on the task at hand.

"There's no down time when you're playing a lot minutes," said Aucoin, 30. "It makes it easier to stay in the game. I think I makes it easier for me. I love it."

Coach Steve Stirling, in his first season behind the Isles' bench, enjoys having Aucoin on the ice.

"He's one of those rare guys that can give you quality minutes," Stirling said. "He's such as steady player. He's strong down low and he keeps it fairly simple. It's comforting to have him out there because you know he's going to make smart decisions."

Aucoin's smart play can be seen in his plus-23 rating, tops among NHL defensemen and second overall behind Canucks winger Todd Bertuzzi's plus-24. But his impressive numbers don't end there. Aucoin's 23 assists tie him for fourth among defensemen with Colorado's Rob Blake and his 25 points tie him for seventh with Nashville's Marek Zidlicky.

While those numbers speak to his level of his play, team captain Mike Peca said Aucoin's game is much more than just stats.

"He's a guy who quietly goes about his business," Peca said. "You need guys like that. But he's also a veteran who helps stabilize the team. He's not afraid to speak out when we need it. He's definitely one our leaders."

Ironically, the acquisition of Aucoin from the Lightning at the 2001 draft went virtually unnoticed by Islander fans -- they were more focused on the blockbuster deal that brought high-priced center Alexei Yashin to the team. The Aucoin deal was further minimized the following day when the Isles bagged Peca from the Sabres in a multiplayer trade.

Aucoin's arrival didn't create too much of a buzz in the Islanders' coaches room, either.

"Peter [Laviolette] wasn't crazy about him in training camp," said one Isles insider. "But Kevin Haller got hurt in the first game of the (2001-02) season and that kind of forced him to give Adrian more time."

After that, it didn't take long for Laviolette to become a believer. In fact, in his 10th game with the club, Aucoin cracked the 30-minute mark in a 3-2 home win over the Stars. By the end of the regular season, Aucoin had played more than 30 minutes on 29 occasions, twice logging an unheard-of 40 minutes. During the Isles' physical seven-game, first-round playoff series against the Leafs, Aucoin averaged 32:19.

Aucoin continued to be a go-to guy for Laviolette. Last season he finished second in the league with 29 minutes per game. During Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the Senators -- a double-overtime loss -- Aucoin played a career-high 45:53.

"Coming to the Islanders was definitely a turning point in my career," said Aucoin, after logging 31:28 in a 4-1 loss to the Rangers on Tuesday. "I had a couple of good years in Vancouver, then I fell out of favor with [coach Marc] Crawford. They had Mattias Ohlund and Ed Jovanovski on the right side. Back then they were definitely better players than me.

"I went to Tampa for half a season, then I got traded to the Islanders. It was good timing. It was a fresh start for me, and the team was getting a fresh start with some new players and a new coach. I'm just glad I got a chance. When you go to a new team, you never know what's going to happen."

This season, Stirling is trying to shave a few minutes off Aucoin's nightly dance card in hopes of keeping him a little fresher down the stretch.

"We've made a conscious effort from day one to make sure that (depth defensemen) Radek Martinek and Eric Cairns are getting their minutes, too," said Stirling, who was promoted from the club's AHL affiliate to replace Laviolette during the offseason. "For the most part, we're right where we want to be with Aucoin."

While Aucoin still has some 30-minute games, mostly due to excessive special teams play, his ice time average is down nearly three minutes this season.

But for the unheralded Islander defenseman, the quality of those minutes continues to get better ... and better ... and better.

Around the Hrinks

  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association boss Bob Goodenow spent some quality time together in New York on Tuesday, watching the Islanders-Rangers game from the league's luxury box at Madison Square Garden. Afterwards, Goodenow spoke with some players from both teams. While no groundbreaking news came out of their latest informal meeting, it's good to see Bettman and Goodenow communicating. That said, it would be very surprising to see any new labor deal struck before the current collective bargaining agreement runs out on Sept. 15.

  • Montreal Canadiens rookie right winger Michael Ryder, 23, has to be considered one of the frontrunners for the Calder Trophy. A draft afterthought (he was selected 216th overall in 1998), Ryder leads all rookies with 20 assists, 31 points and 113 shots on goal. Listed at 6-feet and 197 pounds, Ryder made it to Montreal after spending some developmental time with Tallahassee and Mississippi of the ECHL. Last year, Ryder netted 34 goals with Hamilton of the American Hockey League. "He's been a good player for them," said one pro scout. "He has some weight to his game. He helps make room for some of their smaller forwards."

  • Carolina Hurricanes goalie Kevin Weekes should get major consideration for a trip to Minnesota for the All-Star Game. The 28-year-old Toronto native has been terrific during the first half. In 37 games, Weekes has 14 wins, a 2.02 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage and five shutouts. On most nights, Weekes gets precious little goal support from the Hurricanes, who are averaging a league-low 1.76 goals per game. "Without him, who knows how bad they'd be?" said one scout. "It's tough on a goalie when he knows he has no room for error. With that team, Weekes can't afford any mistakes." Hopefully, the league's hockey operations department will recognize his performance.

    E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.