The New York Islanders have had an unexpectedly bizarre season thus far. The apex of this is undoubtedly the spread of Covid through the locker room. Like the rest of the world, the Islanders are not fully immune to this terrible virus. The correct precautions were taken by the organization when general manager Lou Lamoriello required that every person in the organization get vaccinated.
On Nov. 16, Josh Bailey was put into Covid protocol and tested positive for the virus. Bailey, the longest-tenured Islanders player, was forced to remain in Florida while the team returned home to open the new UBS Arena. What would be the beginning of this disaster continued on Nov. 19 when the captain, Anders Lee and depth forward Ross Johnston entered Covid protocol.
On the day of the opening game at UBS Arena, Andy Greene and Adam Pelech joined the growing list of players in Covid protocol. The depth of the Bridgeport Islanders would now be tested as top prospect Robin Salo would be called up and thrown into the starting lineup. Grant Hutton would also make the jump from the AHL to the NHL starting lineup. The team was noticeably weaker, missing key players. Fellow defenseman Ryan Pulock had been put on the injured reserve just before the Covid crisis, leaving the defense corp in shambles.
Islanders Covid Concerns Continue
The very next day after the home opener, the Islanders hosted their second game at their new home. It was also the third straight day for a player to enter the Covid protocol. Now young depth forward Kieffer Bellows would be sidelined with the virus.
Despite the growing concern for the players and the opposing teams, the NHL allowed the Islanders to play the game with a host of Bridgeport players and were unsurprisingly defeated by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Islanders would have two days off to recover, but for the fourth straight day, they added a player to the Covid list. Veteran Zdeno Chara was added to the list, further depleting the defensive group.
Once again, to the disdain of the fans, the “Islanders” suited up against the rival New York Rangers. After a hard-fought effort from the team, the Rangers prevailed with a 4-1 victory. Days later, the NHL finally acknowledged the situation and postponed the Islanders’ next two games; Casey Cizikas was added to the Covid list as well.
Before the Covid crisis hit the Islanders roster, the team had difficulty finding consistency to their game. More notably, the defensive style of Barry Trotz’s system was not prevailing in the first 17 games. The Islanders opened the season conceding five goals or more in five games. Despite being down Semyon Varlamov, goaltending was not the reason. In fact, Ilya Sorokin had played at such a high level that he stole the wins the team had achieved on the road trip.
The departure of defenseman Nick Leddy in the offseason seemed justified with the salary cap concerns and his drop-off in performance the last two years. What Leddy brought to the defensive group would be missed more than anyone could have predicted to start the season. Leddy was a dependable top-four defenseman with excellent speed and the ability to move the puck quickly out of the zone.
The reunion with Zdeno Chara has not gone as hoped for both parties. Chara is a physical presence and asset on the penalty kill, but the 44-year-old has looked slow and far past his prime. Having one elder defenseman in the bottom pairing is not uncommon, but Chara joined the 39-year-old Andy Greene in the starting six. Greene is a steady, stay-at-home defenseman with incredible leadership qualities. But after losing the speed and skating ability of Leddy, the group cannot afford to have slow, aging defensemen in the starting lineup.
Opportunity for Islanders Youth
With injury or sickness comes the opportunity for someone to make their mark on the club. Having been with the organization for five years, Sebastion Aho had shown flashes of skill at the NHL level. Coming out of camp, Aho pushed hard to earn a roster spot. That opportunity presented itself when Ryan Pulock went down with a lower-body injury. Little did Aho know that he would be replacing Pulock on the top pairing in the coming days.
Aho provides a much-needed boost of athleticism, speed, and creativity. Although Aho plays a smaller game, he can hang in with the opposition low in the defensive zone. His speed is a welcome addition to a slower group collectively. The elusiveness in each zone provides the opportunity to move the puck forward and up the ice for an offensive threat. In six games played this season, Aho has proven that he is not afraid to get the puck to the net with 14 shots. This attribute has earned him time on a putrid power play.
Due to the Covid situation, Robin Salo’s development was pushed ahead of time to assist the depleted NHL lineup. Salo has a tremendous poise to his game for playing his first year in North America. The agility and confidence with the puck have stood out in his first four games. His head coach took notice as he was among the leaders in ice time for those games. In his last game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he registered 23:44 of ice time. The 23-year-old has stepped into a difficult situation and played like a veteran. At 6-foot-2, 192 pounds, Salo provides the size and strength to compete at this level while having an extremely high upside.
The remaining cap space available for this season was assumed to be aimed at improving the defense or replacing Leddy. With the rise of Salo and Aho, Lamoriello may not need to focus on the defensive depth and can instead pursue a much-needed sniper. The team has the depth and versatility with veterans Chara & Greene combined with Aho & Salo.
This has been a difficult time for the players and the organization, but it may have provided a chance to see these young players that would normally not sniff the NHL club. Additionally, the mental break provided should recover the team from the grueling start of the season on the road.
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Glenn is an avid hockey fan that has lived on Long Island his entire life, rooting for the New York Islanders. He has contributed for several sites for hockey and baseball.