By Daniel Friedman
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The start of training camp is an exciting moment for various different reasons; the most obvious one being that it’s a reminder that hockey season is just around the corner.
Last year, we waited and waited for that moment. It didn’t arrive until January 13th but, when it did, we welcomed it with open arms and even wider smiles on our faces. This time, there will be no waiting period. Training camps are set to open on-time; the familiar storylines already gracing the sports pages, the anticipation boiling to the surface.
For the New York Islanders, however, this will be anything but business as usual. They will not be starting their training camp at Nassau Coliseum or Iceworks (though they will be in those two locations for the rest of it).
Instead, they’ll be congregating in a rink at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn — a rink that, in two years’ time, will be their home ice.
Beyond that aspect, you might think that everything else will be the same as it always is. The players will wake up, put on their gear, play hockey and go to bed. That is not the case; they now have higher expectations of themselves and their approach will be more intense than in the past, both on and off the ice.
There are three burning questions the Islanders must answer between now and October, and they are as follows: How will Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson do out there and can either or both make the team, which rookie defenseman will claim the roster spot left by Mark Streit’s departure and, lastly, how will the goaltending look and who will serve as Evgeni Nabokov’s backup?
Regarding the two rookie forwards, I expect Strome to make the team because he’s too good not to. It also doesn’t hurt that Strome is comfortable playing at center or on the wing, because that gives the coaching staff more flexibility in terms of finding a roster spot for him.
I don’t see a need to worry about “rushing” Strome. He’s absolutely ready for this. At prospect camp this summer, he looked so much better than anyone else, to the point where I knew it was because he was really the only one there who displayed the kind of on-ice performance and mental preparedness of an NHL-ready player.
Conversely, Brock Nelson — who is strictly a center — will have a tougher time making the team for that reason. Even if Strome is moved to the wing, Nelson still has his work cut out for him.
In John Tavares, Frans Nielsen, Peter Regin and Casey Cizikas, the Islanders have four legitimate NHL pivots. Nelson will have to unseat either Regin or Cizikas, and I don’t see that happening right now. His game is not quite up to par yet, either; some more seasoning is required, at least in my opinion. I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t in Bridgeport, come October.
Another matter of interest is that Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck will be skating with their new teammates for the first time. It will be interesting to see who they develop chemistry with and, ultimately, who they’ll end up playing with on opening night.
Shifting over to the blue line, I think there’s a clear favorite in the race for that open spot on defense.
If I were a betting man, I’d say Matt Donovan will get the nod over Calvin de Haan and Griffin Reinhart because he’s the most polished of that group. He’s coming off an All-Star campaign in which he recored 48 points and was a plus-14.
If not for the fact that de Haan’s coming off an injury, this would’ve essentially been a jump-ball between him and Donovan. Reinhart is getting closer but isn’t NHL-ready and needs to bulk up. He has said that he is ready for the big show; I think another season in Juniors would do him good, which is something that, despite his confidence, he openly-acknowledged at prospect camp this summer.
One name that should be in this mix but hasn’t received much attention is Aaron Ness; he had 27 points last year in Bridgeport and didn’t look out of place during a nine-game stint with the Isles in 2011-12. He’s a long-shot, no doubt, but the Isles will definitely give him a look.
As for the goaltending situation; it has certainly sparked a great deal of commotion and continues to do so.
When you’re dealing with a goalie in his late-thirties, you’re going to have legitimate concerns. That holds as true for Evgeni Nabokov as it does for Martin Brodeur. That said, there are countermeasures that can be taken in order to ensure that the process of deterioration isn’t being accelerated.
It’s important to keep in mind that Nabokov played an awful lot for someone his age last season. He has to be rested more often so that he isn’t completely worn out down the stretch and, in order to be able to do that, the Isles need to have someone else to lean on. That’s where Kevin Poulin comes in.
If you want to know how much pressure is on Poulin here, take the amount you think Nabokov is under and then multiply it by fifty.
Poulin is now 23 years-of-age. It’s been five years since he was drafted by the organization. The apprenticeship is over and the time for working out the kinks has passed.
He has to show that he can be a reliable NHL net-minder and take a significant amount of the load off Nabokov’s shoulders. As if that weren’t enough, he also has to do it with Anders Nilsson breathing right down his neck.
The message being sent to Kevin Poulin is crystal-clear: “Your move, kid.”
Indeed, hockey season is just around the corner. Over the next 23 days, the New York Islanders will take many important steps towards determining how successful their season will be.
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