On Monday, Sept. 11, New York Islanders general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello spoke to the media to provide updates on the team. One of the things mentioned was that defenseman Alexander Romanov will be questionable to start training camp as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery.
The injury appears like an early-season concern but it’s likely that Romanov will be on the opening night roster. Even if he is off to a slow start, the hard-hitting defenseman looks to return to form and become a staple of the defensive unit throughout the season.
Latest News & Highlights
The injury itself raises a bigger concern for the Islanders. They need a defenseman who is ready to step up and fill in on the NHL roster at any time. Only six starting spots are available but the one skater that doesn’t make the cut must be reliable and capable of rounding out the defense whenever someone gets injured. For the Islanders, an injury in the unit is not only inevitable but something that can derail the season as it has in the past.
In the 2021-22 season, Ryan Pulock went down with an injury in the Nov. 15 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Islanders went 10-11-4 in his absence, making it one of the primary reasons they missed the playoffs. Last season, Adam Pelech suffered a head injury in the Dec. 6 loss to the St. Louis Blues. The team went 7-10-5 with him out of the lineup, causing the Islanders to fall from the top of the Metropolitan Division and forcing them to crawl back into contention in the second half of the season.
The bottom line is that the Islanders need reinforcements on their defense and an extra skater will go a long way. With the preseason around the corner, all eyes will be on the young skaters who can take on that role and the skill sets they can provide at the NHL level.
Samuel Bolduc is the most likely young defenseman to make the opening night roster and if not, he’ll play that role as the extra defenseman. Last season, he started 17 games and the short stint was enough for Lamoriello to give him a two-year contract this offseason. He showed flashes but played a minimal and uneventful role on the defense, averaging only 14:24 ice time, scoring two goals and one assist while contributing 0.9 defensive point shares.
His first season had a lot of trial and error as he often missed assignments and allowed opponents to find scoring chances. However, the ceiling is there for Bolduc. He’s 6-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds, naming him the biggest defenseman on the unit along with veteran Scott Mayfield. Despite his bigger frame, he has the skating ability to make a difference in the fast-paced game as well, and if he can add more offense, he can become a prominent starter for years to come.
Playing the left side, Bolduc will push Sebastian Aho for the starting job throughout training camp. While the job is still Aho’s after he was a pleasant surprise last season, Bolduc is ready to fill in at any point. While he’s only 22 years old, he’s one of the older defensemen capable of unseating one of the veterans ahead of the season. Many of the others are prospects looking to make strong first impressions.
The Islanders’ second-round selection in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft was Calle Odelius. The defenseman out of Sweden looked like a project that would take years to develop before making his way to the NHL. That said, he received an invite to the rookie camp and will look to make his mark in the upcoming weeks.
Odelius has a two-way presence that can make him a valuable skater for the Islanders on the blue line. While his stats were underwhelming last season, scoring only two goals and 11 assists in 54 games in all competitions, his shot, speed, and puck-handling are still a significant part of his game. The Islanders’ defensive unit is a great one but lacks a two-way player that can open up the offense and if Odelius makes a strong first impression, he will be the skater to watch.
Unlike Bolduc, Odelius is a smaller defenseman, at 5-foot-11 and weighing only 185 pounds. However, he makes his mark as a faster defenseman. For the Islanders, this gives them options for how they can fill the void on their defense throughout the season. If Mayfield is hurt, Bolduc will likely get the call, and similarly, if Aho goes down to injury or struggles, Odelius could be the defenseman to step up. He’ll likely start out the season in one of the minor leagues, whether it’s overseas or in the American Hockey League (AHL), but heading into the season, he is the wild card on the unit.
Just before the start of rookie camp, Isaiah George signed his entry-level contract. After the Islanders selected Odelius in the 2022 Draft, they used their next pick to add another defenseman to their farm system. George had an impressive season with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and now his sights are set on the NHL level as he looks to join the team in the near future.
George still needs time to develop and will likely start out the season in the AHL with the Bridgeport Islanders. However, like Odelius, he’s another young skater who has proven he can make an impact in the two-way game. He doesn’t have a potent shot, scoring only seven goals in 54 games with the Knights last season, but his puck-handing and ability to transition from defense to offense make him a valued prospect.
The Islanders can put George in a similar category as Matthew Maggio, who also signed an entry-level contract this offseason, and William Dufour, the two best forward prospects in the system. All three skaters will likely play in the AHL this season as they wait for their chance to make an impression with the pro team. However, they have shown flashes and the ability to make an impact with the Islanders if needed. With a strong camp, George can become that extra defenseman, and the 19-year-old can not only impress but maintain a starting role for years to come.
Robin Salo enters this season in an interesting spot. He’s not a starter and with Bolduc ahead of him on the depth chart, there doesn’t appear to be a role for Salo, who turns 25 just before the season begins.
What makes Salo interesting is that he won the starting job on the left side out of training camp and started 11 games last season. However, once Aho took over the starting role, he never looked back and left Salo in the dust. Despite having a track record and proving to be a capable defenseman, he wasn’t called up from the AHL last season when the Islanders needed reinforcements. Instead, Bolduc, the younger option, got the call.
If there’s no place for Salo on the roster, the question is where the Islanders go from here. He could be a part of a trade either before the season or at midseason as part of a blockbuster but his value is at an all-time low these days. There’s also a possibility that the Islanders put him on waivers, but they won’t want to lose him for nothing. The best option will be to keep him at the AHL level but Salo is one of the defensemen who is low on the pecking order and it makes his future with the team an uncertain one.
What The Islanders Need in Their New Defensemen
The Islanders at the very least, need a stop-gap option. Simply, they need defensemen who can fill in and prevent the unit from falling apart if an injury occurs. None of the younger defensemen will take on a great role in the unit and will likely see limited time on the ice but they must play gap-sound defense and limit opponents from finding easy scoring opportunities.
In the bigger picture, the Islanders are looking to add a two-way presence to their defense. Last season in the first round, they saw the gap between a good and great defense. The Carolina Hurricanes had a unit that could create offense and find the back of the net from the point while the Islanders struggled. Ultimately, it was the difference in a low-scoring series as the Hurricanes advanced in six games.
The Islanders have one of the best defenses in the NHL. That said, the difference between one that can get them to the playoffs and one that can propel them to the Cup is in the two-way game. Not only will the Islanders look for reinforcements but they hope to find players that can take them to the next level.