Islanders Face Difficult Lineup Decisions

As of Friday, Dec. 30, the New York Islanders have six players on injured reserve. Three of them – Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Palmieri, and Semyon Varlamov – are traveling with the team as they head to the west coast to start 2023. The other three – Adam Pelech, Simon Holmstrom, and Oliver Wahlstrom – will be staying in New York.

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As difficult as it may be to wait, we likely won’t get an update on the latter three until the Islanders return, though Wahlstrom being listed as “out indefinitely” isn’t a good sign. As for the former, swapping Varlamov for emergency recall, Corey Schneider, doesn’t present a difficult lineup decision but replacing Clutterbuck and Palmieri will. How will head coach Lane Lambert approach the situation given that the Bridgeport call-ups – Aatu Raty and Hudson Fasching – have made such a positive impact and offer a lot of flexibility?

Islanders Callups Making an Impact

The Islanders love their veterans, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given how general manager Lou Lamoriello has constructed the roster. However, as injuries have piled up, the Islanders’ call-ups have been making an enormous impact on the team. Parker Wotherspoon, the Islanders’ 112th choice in the 2015 NHL Draft, has filled in nicely in Pelech’s absence, and though the veteran defender would be much preferred, Wotherspoon has shown some great flashes of what he’s capable of.

Related: Islanders Weekly: Injuries Open Door for Rookies

Raty is averaging less than 10 minutes a game, but he’s looked good while doing it, playing alongside a bit of a rag-tag fourth line. He scored in his debut against the Florida Panthers with a confident move to the middle and is even getting some limited time on the team’s second power play. In just three games, he has a 67.89% Corsi for in all situations (according to Natural Stattrick) and five shots on goal.

Aatu Raty New York Islanders
Aatu Raty, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Fasching, on his fourth NHL team with just 38 games of experience before his call-up to Long Island, has also taken advantage of his time with the big club. He’s played up and down the lineup, and while his numbers aren’t setting the world on fire (four points in 10 games), his energy has helped provide a huge boost to the team at a time when they were losing that part of their identity.

Islanders Lambert Faces Lineup Decisions

Raty’s call-up from Bridgeport gave Lambert a lot of flexibility and, in turn, created a really great third line, somewhat by accident. Raty is a center, which pushed up Casey Cizikas to play wing alongside Zach Parise and J.G. Pageau, and they have played extremely well together. They’re easily the team’s hardest-working line despite their average age of 33. They’re called upon in all situations and have created some good scoring chances together on top of being great in their own zone.

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So, while Raty is mostly playing well despite needing a bit more seasoning in Bridgeport, deciding whether or not he should be in the lineup goes beyond that. As previously mentioned, that third line was created because Raty was called up, and, in theory, sending him to Bridgeport would spell the end of that experiment. Is that worth it?

Additionally, with the availability of Palmieri and Clutterbuck, the decision gets a little more difficult. The easier decision is Palmieri, who can slot in next to Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey in Wahlstrom’s absence and push Fasching down to play on the fourth line. Clutterbuck, on the other hand, affects more than one player. Ross Johnston is easy to scratch, opening up a spot in the lineup, but there’s a domino effect, which includes Raty, Cizikas, Clutterbuck, and Fasching.

Casey Cizikas New York Islanders
Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It would be simple enough to reunite the fourth line of Matt Martin, Cizikas, and Clutterbuck with Fasching on the third line with Parise and Pageau. Fasching and Cizikas are similar, so that doesn’t present too much of a shakeup. But does Lambert want to break up that third line that’s played so well, even if Fasching is a good fit? Let’s assume he doesn’t break up that third line – does that mean Clutterbuck comes in for Fasching on the fourth line to play with Martin and Raty? Or does Clutterbuck – who wears an ‘A’ – sit for Fasching, who has more than earned a spot?

If it were up to this writer, the third line would stay intact, pushing Fasching down to the fourth line to play with Martin and Raty. It would give Raty a bit more to work with on the fourth line and provide a really nice bottom six for Lambert to work with. Palmieri and Wahlstrom aren’t exactly the same, but Palmieri has experience playing with Barzal, and they’ve found some chemistry. So, while Wahlstrom remains without a timetable to return, he’s as good a choice as any to flank Barzal.

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This upcoming stretch on the west coast is vital for the Islanders’ playoff hopes, so these lineup decisions aren’t trivial. As they ride a three-game winning streak into their road trip, it might be wise to keep the lineup as intact as possible and only make a change when needed instead of preemptively. The Islanders love their veterans, but it may be time to make some difficult decisions.