As Islanders Clinch Playoffs, Questions Remain up Front

The New York Islanders have great depth between the pipes with Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss enjoying unbelievable seasons. In front of that tandem, the team’s defense has been reliable, and with the return of Thomas Hickey from injury, the back-end now has a strong seventh-defenseman with two others, Luca Sbisa and Dennis Seidenberg, as last resorts.

It’s the Islanders forward group that has some depth problems, raising questions as the team recently clinched a playoff spot. The team’s recent gutsy win against the sliding Winnipeg Jets showed they can score against the league’s top teams, but can their forwards sustain this level of play?

A Forward Group in Flux

Islanders General Manager Lou Lamoriello decided to stand pat at the trade deadline in February, raising some questions about a team that was in the midst of a season of unexpected success. Shortly after, the team began to show signs of weakness. The scoring they did have dried up and their ability to keep pucks out of their net – a staple of the team’s success this season – began to falter.

Then the injuries piled up. Andrew Ladd is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, Valteri Filipula is unable to play through the first round of the playoffs, and Tanner Fritz, who missed the last couple of games, will now miss 6-8 weeks according to Newsday’s Andrew Gross.

Islanders left wing Andrew Ladd
Islanders left winger Andrew Ladd. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite the injuries, the Islanders have been playing better of late, though not without a few clunkers against teams fighting for their playoff lives. The Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets shut out the Islanders, helping both teams jockey for the last wild card spot in the East. A tough Boston Bruins squad also shut out the Islanders, who were only able to muster 13 shots against Tuukka Rask, their fewest of the season.

In total, the Islanders weren’t able to score three times over a five game stretch during a critical point in the season, highlighting many of the concerns from the media and fans. If the Islanders want to survive the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, their likely opponent, they’ll need everyone up front to begin finding the net.

Who Can Make a Difference?

Depth players always seem to make a difference come playoff time. Every year, an unlikely bottom-six player steps up when it counts, helping to vault their team to a Stanley Cup. Last year, the Washington Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly scored seven goals in the playoffs, matching his regular season total in 30 less games. For the Islanders, they’re going to need players up and down the lineup to find ways onto the scoresheet, but who?

Thomas Kuhnhackl, who won back to back Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, has provided some good depth and experience in 33 games this season. He’s only scored four goals, including this beautiful backhander against the Capitals, and clearly has an offensive upside:

With the door open on the third line, Kuhnhackl has an opportunity to be a difference maker in the playoffs.

Michael Dal Colle, who had been a healthy scratch since Mar. 9, was given a chance and had a good game against the Blue Jackets on Mar. 11 with multiple high-danger chances coming in the second period. Coach Barry Trotz likes what he sees from the young forward, but there are times Dal Colle doesn’t look totally comfortable.

To be fair, he’s only played 26 NHL games this season between time in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and in a suit in the press box, not exactly giving the young forward an opportunity to get comfortable and build chemistry with linemates.

Dal Colle now has a chance to play in the top-six on a line with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey, which paid off against the Buffalo Sabres as he battled in front, deflecting an Adam Pelech shot from the point for his third of the season. The 6-foot-3, 204-pound forward also made a few great passes against the Sabres. He’s gaining his confidence and finding his groove at the right time.

Cal Clutterbuck is an interesting player. He’s not very far removed from scoring 15 goals (2015-16) and still possesses a dangerous wrist shot. He gets power play time and plays on a fourth line anchored by one of the team’s best stories this season, Casey Cizikas. In short, Clutterbuck has a lot of opportunities to score, and while he hasn’t been depended on to do so this season, he has the ability to help the Islanders win games in the postseason.

For now, Islanders fans can exhale, if only for a moment. With three games remaining, including John Tavares’ second return to Long Island, there’s an opportunity to clinch home ice in the first round and, possibly, first place in the Metropolitan Division.