The New York Islanders are going to be forced to make a roster decision they do not want to make: what to do with elite, defensive prospect Noah Dobson. Should he make the Islanders roster out of training camp or should he be sent back to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for one more season?
Dobson, the 12th overall selection in the 2018 NHL Draft has accomplished all that there is to accomplish at the junior hockey level. In his only two seasons of junior hockey, he has won back-to-back Canadian Hockey League Memorial Cup championships, once with Acadie Bathurst Titan in 2017-18 followed by the 2018-19 title with the Huskies. He was also named to the CHL Memorial Cup All-Star Team twice. Add in two QMJHL championships and First All-Star Team selections, plus the QMJHL Playoffs MVP in 2018-19 and a clearer picture of Dobson’s elite talent comes into focus.
The dilemma for the Islanders is can they afford to send him back to junior hockey? With his mantle full of trophies and accomplishments what else does he have to prove? Would another year of junior hockey mean a year of wasted development dominating in a league as a 19-year-old? Is it in Dobson’s and the Islanders’ best interests that he makes the NHL team for better or worse since the American Hockey League is not an option due to an agreement between the NHL and CHL?
That agreement states that players drafted and playing for CHL teams are ineligible to play in the professional minor leagues until they are 20 years old (by Dec. 31 of that year) or have completed four years in major juniors. Dobson turns 20 on Jan. 7.
Logjam on Islanders Defense
Complicating matters is the apparent logjam on the Islanders’ blue line that has a depth chart of seven capable defensemen in Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Devon Toews, Scott Mayfield and Thomas Hickey. The team also has prospects Sebastian Aho and Mitchell Vande Sompel knocking on the NHL door, playing in Bridgeport of the AHL. The Islanders are also coming off a season in which they gave up the fewest goals in the NHL, helping their goalie tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss capture the Jennings Trophy.
So how do the Islanders create an opportunity for Dobson that would see him play meaningful minutes on a nightly basis?
The most direct path would be for general manager Lou Lamoriello to engineer a trade of one of his defensemen. Lamoriello has been under the gun to upgrade the Islanders top-six forwards by adding a goal scorer, especially since swinging and whiffing on free agent Artemi Panarin who went to crosstown rival New York Rangers.
The three most likely to be included in any trade package would be Leddy, Pelech and Hickey. None of the three would return an elite level scorer, but all three have team-friendly deals with manageable cap hits and term on their contracts that would make enticing targets in a larger offer. All three also offer differing skill sets to prospective buyers.
What Dobson offers above all other Islander defensemen and prospects not named Pulock and Toews is his ability to play a strong two-way game and an ability to play in all situations, including quarterbacking the power play and penalty killing. He owns a strong, accurate shot and he puts himself in good positions to make plays in all zones. He is reliable and consistent and can play upwards of 20 minutes a night if given the opportunity.
Tough Decisions Ahead
Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz, along with the Islanders coaching staff, have tough decisions to make as they shape the team’s roster for 2019-20. If Dobson is to reach his potential he will need to play regularly especially if he finds himself on the Islanders roster on opening night.
If Lamoriello can’t engineer a trade to create a roster spot, one plan the team may want to investigate to see if Dobson is ready for the rigors of the NHL is to have him make the Islanders team out of training camp as an audition. That plan could include Dobson playing up to his nine-game limit over the first two months of the season into December, and if it’s determined he is not quite ready for the NHL he could then be released to play for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships and then returned back to his junior hockey league club in January. The advantage of this scenario would allow for Dobson to play NHL games, while also practicing at the NHL level and not burning a year off of his entry-level deal.
The Islanders can ill afford to get this wrong. A wasted year in developmental time is not what the team or Dobson need. The long-term development of a prized prospect is at stake.