By Daniel Friedman
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With rookie camp behind us, we’re now officially in the dog days of the hockey offseason.
It’s at this point that we begin to speculate and look ahead to training camps that will commence in September. Why? Because in three months, most teams will look virtually the same way on paper as they do right now. Restricted free agents will come home to roost, minor tweaks will be made and, all in all, not much will change.
But not every organization has its house in order yet. The Islanders are one such organization, with far too many players under contract and several young prospects looking to nab spots in the lineup. For wherever they rank among the 30 NHL teams, the Isles might have more roster decisions to make than anyone else, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Competition is nice, having too many quality forwards is a good problem to have — as long as you address it. The Islanders will have to make these decisions and any required moves, via trade or by waiving players, to ensure that they’re icing their best possible lineup.
That’s where the young talent comes in. General manager Garth Snow has done an excellent job of drafting and providing the organization with fresh blood. The time has come to take off the training wheels and let the kids really play.
For quite a while there was a reluctance to bring in veterans because they’d take playing time away from the youngsters. That’s all we heard about for several years. And in Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart and Anders Lee, the Islanders have three significant pieces of their future puzzle. If they’re going to be a big part of this team’s core and they have enough to get by at the NHL level right now, they need to be on the team; plain and simple.
Brock Nelson is essentially a shoo-in to make the team. He struggled early last season, in my opinion, which admittedly caused me to judge him too soon. I was wrong, and I’m glad that I was because he’s a great kid and I wish him nothing but success. Look what that full year with the team did for him. In hindsight, do I think he would have developed as well in Bridgeport? No, I don’t.
Lee has more muscle than Nelson does and he’s already displayed a scoring touch, not to mention a willingness to go hard to the net. If he’s not NHL-ready, I don’t know who is.
I think the Isles learned a lot from the Josh Bailey experiment, which was important and was definitely a big step for them. They rushed him and they’re trying to avoid doing the same to others. However, I believe that there’s a happy medium and that you don’t need to resort to the opposite extreme.
Considering how Strome has been handled, it seems to me the Islanders are terrified that he’ll become Bailey 2.0. To say the Isles have taken their time with this kid is a ginormous understatement. He was far and away the best rookie in training camp last summer, yet he was sent down to Bridgeport. Even when he was called up, he played on the third line, which hardly maximized his talent.
You don’t want to rush anyone, but you can’t hold players back, either. It was a mistake to leave Strome off of the opening night roster last season. He had a good camp, he deserved to be there. He had nothing to learn from going to Bridgeport, and he proved it by wiping the floor with the competition.
Strome needs to bulk up. There’s absolutely no question about that. But even this is overblown. Reilly Smith is 6-foot, 185 pounds. Did that stop him from getting 51 points last season? How about Ondrej Palat, the third-to-last pick in Strome’s draft year (2011)? Did the fact that he’s 6-foot, 180 pounds prevent him from racking up 59 points and becoming a Calder Trophy runner-up?
I didn’t think so. There’s absolutely no reason why Strome can’t have similar success despite his 6-1, 188-pound frame.
That alone is not a good enough reason to send Strome to Bridgeport. The AHL is not a fitness club. You don’t go there to get jacked; you go there to learn how to play pro hockey. And then once you’ve done that, you go to the NHL to learn how to assimilate those newly reinforced skills into the highest level of pro hockey.
Reinhart is the only one I’d understand being sent to Bridgeport, though I still think he at least needs to start off with the Islanders. Letting him get his feet wet or a a tasteshould be the minimum the Isles do.
I can guarantee that playing Reinhart for 10 games isn’t going to make or break the Islanders’ season. He’s certainly ready for the NHL as far as physical maturation is concerned, so as long as he looks pretty competent in September, I’d give him a trial run in the big leagues.
Strome, Lee and Reinhart need to be in the lineup on opening night. If you want to make them feel as if they need to compete for their jobs, fine. But at the end of the day, the jobs should be theirs to lose, mostly because the Isles have shied away from signing young free agents at the positions they play.
We like to talk about the development process and to pick apart every detail of a player’s game. The fact is, there’s no such thing as a prospect who is 100 percent ready to play in the NHL, because there’s only so much a player can learn about playing at that level without actually doing so.
So, yes, Strome needs to work on his defensive awareness. He’s going to do that by playing against the best competition in the world and by learning from the best, from guys like Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner. That’s what you want him to be doing now. He’ll learn a heck of a lot more being a sponge than by going to Bridgeport and leading the league in scoring.
Therefore, you make room for him, for Lee – and I don’t mean on the fourth line. You’ll tell me I don’t know what the existing options are, and I’ll tell you that’s not my job to figure it out. It’s the GM’s, and the good ones find a way to accomplish what they need to.
It’s time to shift into high gear and let that young talent flourish. It’s the only way the Islanders will ever take that next step.
Follow Dan on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI
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