On the surface, losing Valtteri Filppula doesn’t seem all that significant for the New York Islanders, but a closer look should have fans concerned.
While Filppula’s offensive production, 17 goals and 14 assists, seems pedestrian, he was one of eight Islanders to score double-digit goals on a team starved for offense. His face-off win percentage was tied for second on the team at 49.1 per cent along with Casey Cizikas and behind Josh Bailey’s 51.5 percent. Filppula proved to be a reliable player who thrived under head coach Barry Trotz’s system.
What’s concerning, is who will replace Filppula on the penalty kill, where the Islanders ranked 10th in the league during the 2018-19 season. He and Leo Komarov were both brought on board as free agents prior to the 2018-19 season, in part for their ability to kill penalties and formed an effective duo and were often the lead forward duo on the ice for the penalty kill. Adding to the special teams concern is the health of Cal Clutterbuck and how effective he will be coming back from off-season back surgery. He and Cizikas continued to be an excellent penalty killing tandem during the 2018-19 season and Clutterbuck’s situation raises more concerns.
So who will the void on the Islanders penalty kill? Here is a list of internal candidates and a potential free agent signing.
One in-house candidate to assume a larger penalty-killing role is Brock Nelson, who from time to time, filled in on the penalty kill. While Nelson’s defensive responsibilities increased last season, no one would confuse him for a shutdown center with a future Selke Trophy on his mantle. Add in the extra minutes played on the power play and his role in the Islanders’ top-six forward group, and Nelson would be hard pressed to increase his team-leading forward time on ice from the 17:58 he is already receiving.
Could Bailey fill the role? Often cited for his defensive awareness and three-zone ability, he doesn’t profile as a top-end penalty killer. Much like Nelson, adding to his minutes as a regular in the top-six forward group and on the power play doesn’t make much sense, especially since Trotz likes to distribute five-on-five playing time across all four lines.
Islanders fans have been waiting to see any return on investment from Andrew Ladd. There’s been little indication as to when he may return from a knee injury that required ACL surgery. While the hope is he will be ready for training camp, the organization can’t trust that he will be healthy enough to contribute in any significant way. Could he be useful on the penalty kill? Yes, but the organization would be better served believing that anything they get from him is a bonus, and a role as a depth penalty killer is more likely.
Tom Kuhnhackl was like a Swiss Army knife and filled a variety of roles, but envisioning him beyond the extra forward that draws into the lineup 20 per cent of the time is difficult. The same can be said for Tanner Fritz, whose late season audition was cut short due to injury, if he even makes the team out of training camp.
Should Finnish prospect Otto Koivula make the team, he could be considered for a penalty killing role. However, he has only one season playing in North America and is likely ticketed for an expanded role with the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers while gaining another year of seasoning. Koivula may get a look at the NHL level at some point during the season when the injury bug hits the Islanders, but his impact with the team will likely come in the 2020-21 season.
Looking outside the organization, free agent Brian Boyle, who is still waiting for a phone call, could be a solution. He would check a lot of boxes on a one-year deal as a bottom-six forward. He has been an effective penalty killer throughout his 12-year career, whether it was with the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightening or New Jersey Devils. His face-off percentage of 51.1 is better than all Islanders other than Bailey. Boyle could also provide a net-front presence on the power play if given a chance on the second unit. He also presents a versatile enough skill set that he has the ability to crash and bang on the walls if needed.
If the Islanders are to duplicate their success in 2019-20, the team’s penalty killing can’t afford to take a step back if the team wants to reach the postseason for a second consecutive year.