The New York Islanders head into training camp with their roster solidified as much as it can be with just under a month until opening night puck drop. On a media call Tuesday afternoon, general manager Lou Lamoriello said in regard to his roster, “this is where we are at and we feel very comfortable with it. We look for the improvement of the incumbent people we have here, but we are happy with this group.” And why shouldn’t he be? After back-to-back Eastern Conference Final appearances against the eventual champions, this team has proven it has the ability to compete year after year. Even with as much as we know about the roster heading into the season, training camp, which opens on Thursday, and pre-season games will help decide some of the smaller details.
The Islanders’ first-line has been a point of contention going back as far as many of us can remember. And while Lamoriello ultimately didn’t make a move for a star winger, namely Vladimir Tarasenko, the Islanders have two internal candidates that will surely get a look next to Mathew Barzal and opposite Anders Lee, who is expected to start the year after rehabbing this summer. Veteran Kyle Palmieri and youngster Oliver Wahlstrom will be battling for the top position, both with the ability to score, but with different complementary attributes.
Palmieri is a proven goalscorer that didn’t have much of a chance to play alongside Barzal in the playoffs, though the two did connect on a great goal in game four of the second round against the Boston Bruins this past season. He’s a known commodity with five straight 20+ goal campaigns before last season on a less than ideal New Jersey Devils squad. Given who the coaching staff is, beginning with head coach Barry Trotz, it’s easy to argue Palmieri gets the first look on the top-line as they sort things out.
Others would say not so fast. J.G. Pageau and Palmieri were an awfully good combination throughout this past playoff run. Additionally, with Zach Parise stepping in on the left side, those three could pose as a formidable, veteran presence on the Islanders’ third line. Palmieri also likes to play in front of the net or in the high slot, clashing with Lee’s normal positioning.
Wahlstrom, on the other hand, provides Barzal with a trigger man. He was unafraid to let the puck go from just about anywhere last season with a lot of success, something Isles fans have been dreaming about for some time. Despite losing his spot to Travis Zajac during the playoff run, Wahlstrom scored at a 22-goal pace during the regular season, adding three points in five playoff games. On most teams, that might not be first-line-winger numbers, but for the Islanders, it provides the overall offense with a nice balance.
Much like the offense, the defensive pairing questions come down to where the newly signed Zdeno Chara will play after signing a one-year deal last week. There aren’t a ton of options given the first pairing of Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech isn’t going anywhere. That leaves us with two scenarios – Chara could be next to Scott Mayfield to form as physical a pairing as you could put together or next to Dobson, providing the youngster with a physical, stay-at-home defenseman, and another veteran presence to help him grow. on and office the ice. Chara has a history of mentoring young players, most notably Charlie McAvoy with the Boston Bruins.
“Zee [Chara] is a good tutor, he’s a student of the game, a true professional. The off-ice part is amazing for the young guys to see why guys last in this league. Zee enjoys doing it. I think it’s been a good situation for us to give him young partners because there’s no better teacher than an on-ice teacher. We can show them video, we can talk to them. We all played the game years and years ago, but these guys are living in the moment, so that’s what makes the best teacher and I think it’s worked out really well for both guys.”From ‘Chara’s Mentorship Has Helped McAvoy Shine‘, NHL.com 8/25/2020
This isn’t to say fellow veteran Andy Greene has been or couldn’t continue to be a great mentor for Dobson; he clearly benefited from Greene as a partner and vice-versa. But perhaps Mayfield could benefit from Greene’s ability to win puck battles and steady presence. Nick Leddy and Mayfield were good at times, though we did see the two struggle quite a bit, so this could be the change Mayfield and Dobson need to settle in and grow even more.
This is where things get a little interesting for the Islanders. Just before they signed Chara, Erik Gustafsson signed a professional tryout (PTO). According to Lamoriello, Gustafsson agreed to the PTO “knowing we [the Islanders] had an opening, but with no promises.”
Assuming he would, at most, receive a one-year, league-minimum contract of $750,000, perhaps even a two-way deal to keep roster flexibility, Gustafsson could be the seventh defenceman in case of emergency. This leaves Thomas Hickey and Sebastian Aho in limbo, possibly playing in the AHL once again, though there’s a possibility of leap-frogging Gustafsson if there’s a significant injury.
The Islanders also announced a slew of signings, bringing back five players on two-way deals. As usual, no terms were disclosed for the players, which included Andy Andreoff, Cole Bardreau, Otto Koivula, Paul LaDue, and Dmytro Timashov. This group should expect to play for the Bridgeport Islanders this season with the forward group is as crowded as it is. Bardreau, Bridgeport’s leading scorer last season, couldn’t stick with the Islanders two seasons ago, but is a decent option in case of an injury.
This leads us to Leo Komarov, Richard Panik, Ross Johnston, Kieffer Bellows, and Michael Dal Colle, the latter two also signing two-way deals with no terms announced. Bellows and Dal Colle may find themselves in Bridgeport to start the year waiting for an opportunity, but most fans have their fingers crossed the situation never becomes dire enough for that to happen. As for returning veterans Komarov and Johnston, along with newcomer Panik, these three are the team’s first line of defense if and when that’s needed.
Panik is unknown to many Islander fans but is a capable forward with the ability to play third-line minutes. He’s scored more than 20 goals just once and hasn’t been able to find his scoring touch since that 2016-17 season with the Chicago Blackhawks. It will be interesting to see if the Islanders try to sneak him through waivers before the start of the season. Goaltender Corey Schnieder is also reported to have signed a two-way deal and will likely report to Bridgeport to support young goalie Jakub Škarek.
Training camp will provide Trotz and Lamoriello, along with the rest of the coaching and management staff, an opportunity to evaluate who fits in and where. Even without a lot of turnover, this roster as currently constructed hasn’t had all that much time together, especially Lee with Palmieri or Wahlstrom. Depth will continue to play an important role as well, though it remains to be seen who the Islanders keep on the main roster with as little space as they have. With less than a month until the 2021-22 season begins, we’ll look out for the answers to these questions as the countdown continues.
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Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.