By Daniel Friedman
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We are three days away from the New York Islanders’ season opener in Newark.
As was required by the league, the Islanders submitted their final roster Monday. Most of the names on it are familiar ones – John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Travis Hamonic and Evgeni Nabokov, to name a few — but there are some fresh faces as well.
Brock Nelson, Matt Donovan and Griffin Reinhart are all on the Isles’ opening-night roster and, indications are, that’ll be the case for years to come.
I was surprised that Ryan Strome didn’t make the team. I don’t feel that Strome was given a fair shot at a roster spot; it’s almost as if the outcome was predetermined, as if the plan was to send him to Bridgeport all along.
Towards the end of the preseason, it became obvious to me that both Strome and Brock Nelson deserved to make the cut. However, if it had to come down to a choice between the two, I would’ve picked Strome. The better player didn’t get the job, as far as I’m concerned.
Strome’s a better skater, better puck-handler, better passer and better shooter than Nelson. He has better vision and more upside. He should’ve been on the opening night roster and, hopefully, it won’t be too long before we see him in an Isles sweater.
If Strome racks up the points as a Sound Tiger from the get-go, that scenario will become entirely plausible.
That is not to suggest that Nelson can’t make an impact with the big club. He’s a smart kid who plays a rugged game in the offensive zone and has the skills to be productive on the NHL stage. He’ll add even more depth to an Islander offense that already has plenty.
One of the most notable names on the opening night roster is Griffin Reinhart, who is getting a nine-game look. Reinhart definitely made a good impression, but he isn’t ready to play in the National Hockey League and that’s unlikely to change over the next couple of weeks.
I had felt that way throughout training camp but, in the match against the Ottawa Senators, those feelings were all but confirmed. Reinhart, who checks-in at 6-foot-4, 202 pounds, was absolutely steamrolled by Sens forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau, despite having a seven-inch and 39-pound advantage on the 5-9, 163-pound Pageau.
Reinhart needs to add some more muscle and improve his balance, as well as his on-ice awareness. There were moments when he looked poised and made good defensive plays and others when he appeared to be lost in his own zone.
The talent is there, as is the potential, but Reinhart is still very much a work in progress.
There’s no harm in seeing what Reinhart has to show for himself, but if he doesn’t amaze and the Isles still hold onto him after nine games, then all logic attributed to the decision not to rush Strome goes right out the window. I don’t think that’ll happen, but we’ll cross that bridge if we get to it.
Most defensemen at his height, or at least the ones who’ve made an impact, weigh between 220 and 230 pounds. Marc Staal is an exception, at 6-4 and 207 pounds, but what he lacks in muscle, he compensates with his excellent skating and positioning.
Neither the extent nor the severity of Travis Hamonic’s injury has been announced, but it’s possible that had a major influence on the decision to keep Reinhart on Long Island.
Another interesting development to come out of training camp was the trio of Tavares, Moulson and “insert right winger here.”
The fact that the Islanders are heading into the regular season without knowing the exact makeup of their top line is a bit alarming.
Jack Capuano still hasn’t figured out who’s going to play alongside Tavares and Moulson and we don’t know how long it’ll take to settle on a final choice. For the Isles, that could potentially hinder their ability to hit the ground running.
At the start of camp, Pierre-Marc Bouchard was the guy. That line showed good chemistry and in Regina, but was broken up after failing to do so the very next game. Capuano swapped out Bouchard, making a very quick decision based on a microscopic sample size.
Since then, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo have auditioned for the role. Capuano will have to decide whether Bouchard, Bailey or Okposo will start the year on the top line, and though all three are capable of performing solidly in that spot, whoever gets it will need time to get into a rhythm and build up a sense of cohesion with his would-be line-mates.
Capuano will be faced with another tough lineup decision once Cal Clutterbuck comes off injured reserve. Where he’ll play is anyone’s guess right now.
Matt Donovan was projected to get a job on that Islander blue line and did just that. I knew he was ready to play in the NHL, but he surpassed my expectations in training camp and the preseason.
Donovan is mobile, agile and smart with the puck. He is very comfortable in the offensive zone and will be a major part of any success this team has on the power play. I think he’ll approach 40 points this year and be the second-leading scorer on the Isles’ defense, right behind Lubomir Visnovsky.
Another player who made a serious impression in training camp was Ryan Pulock. He showed off that cannon of his and even looked good in the defensive zone.
Pulock was sent back to Juniors, which was the right move at this point of his career.
That said, I think he’s at least a year ahead in terms of his development and we could see him challenge for a roster spot by next season.
The Islanders are icing a competitive team, at least on paper. It’ll be up to the players on that list, from the rookies to the veterans, to ensure that their collective potential translates into real success.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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