Training Camp Preview: New-Look Goaltending, Depth Up Front Key To Success

By Daniel Friedman
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The Islanders are set to begin training camp and, albeit for different reasons than last year, are doing so amid a typhoon of optimism and potential.

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Never mind that they were supposed to make the playoffs last season, having taken the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games the prior spring. Now, they simply have to get in.

Key acquisitions have been made, holes have been patched up and lessons have been learned. It’s also the franchise’s final season at Nassau Coliseum, so they should probably give their fans and that building the proper sendoff.

No pressure, right?

It’s a big task, but one the Isles are absolutely capable of accomplishing. Their talent pool is deeper; their youngsters are stronger and wiser. Their goaltending situation has improved dramatically, which is kind of an important development. All in all, there’s a lot to like.

The goaltending hierarchy is set. Jaroslav Halak will start and Chad Johnson will back him up, while Kevin Poulin will go to the minors. It would take an incredible showing from Poulin to usurp Johnson, and even that might not be enough. Don’t count on it.

Here’s what we know about the offense: Brock Nelson is going to get first dibs on John Tavares’s wing. I want to see Nelson shooting the puck a bit more often, especially since he’s going to have a premier playmaker setting him up in the offensive zone.

If for some reason that combination doesn’t work out, I’d look at Ryan Strome and Cory Conacher, with Anders Lee being a dark horse possibility.

Conacher is an interesting case, because he does have talent and a history of producing alongside elite centers (see: Stamkos, Steven). I’d like to see him get a few shifts with Tavares, though I think he could mesh with Mikhail Grabovski and Frans Nielsen as well. He has a better shot at making this team than you might think. Don’t count him out.

We know that Grabovski and buddy Nikolai Kulemin will likely play on a line together, something they did in Toronto and showed great chemistry doing. The Islanders hope that reuniting the two will bring back the magic, and though it’s definitely a risk, I think that’s a worthwhile gamble.

This also allows Nielsen to slide into that third line center role, something he’s said he prefers. Michael Grabner and Josh Bailey would appear to be the frontrunners to play on Nielsen’s left and right wings, which means Cal Clutterbuck is probably moving down to the fourth line. That leaves us with Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin, who were mainstays last season. I highly doubt that changes.

For those of you who’ve been waiting to see the “CCM line” become a regular trio, you might just get your wish. It would also give the Islanders one heck of a checking line. Clutterbuck does a lot of good things, but he was miscast on the third line for most of 2013-14. Put him in the right situation and he’ll thrive.

Talk about forward depth, huh? Unfortunately, roster spots are limited, which is where this could become problematic. It’s a nice problem to have, but even those need to be resolved.

Where this becomes an issue is that, inevitability, someone who probably should make the team won’t. There are just too many players under contract and not enough roster spots.

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Assuming that Grabner and Bailey make the team, where does Lee fit? The answer is: nowhere. Not right now anyway – unless the Isles are planning on keeping him as an extra forward or putting him on the fourth line, neither of which do Lee or the Islanders any good. If he’s not going to get adequate ice time in the NHL, send him to Bridgeport.

Of course, if Lee demonstrates in training camp that he’s not quite ready for the big leagues, it will become a very easy decision. That said, if he’s ready to take the next step (and he should be), general manager Garth Snow must find room for him as soon as possible – likely via a trade.

As for some of the other forwards, I like Eric Boulton and admire his willingness to stand up for his teammates, but I really don’t see how he gets a spot. It’d be hard to justify taking him over Conacher or Colin McDonald. I’m sure Mike Halmo will get a look as well, but that’s about it.

Training camp invite Colton Gillies (who is related to Islander legend Clark) is a no-risk, potentially decent-reward roll of the dice, but I’d say his best bet is to impress the coaches enough to send him to Bridgeport on a two-way deal.

Remove from your mind the notion that first round draft picks Michael Dal Colle or Josh Ho Sang might make the team. There’s no chance it happens. That’s not a shot at either player; there’s simply no room on this roster. These kids are still learning and will continue to develop in juniors. Their time will come.

Shifting over to the blue line, all eyes will be on Griffin Reinhart’s quest to make the opening night roster. Barring his performance in training camp raising any major concerns, he will make the cut. If he doesn’t look out of place, the Islanders will find him a place.

T.J. Brennan is a legitimate dark horse candidate. He’s coming off a 72-point season in the AHL and has shown potential. I would say it’s between him and Matt Donovan for an extra spot. Donovan led the team in Corsi last season and has at times shown he can move the puck well, but he needs to find more consistency.

If the Isles opt to carry another spare defenseman, Matt Carkner will probably be the guy. Kevin Czuczman and Scott Mayfield will also challenge for roster spots, but odds are they’ll start out in Bridgeport.

Ryan Pulock’s going to be very hard to turn away, but I don’t think he makes it out of training camp. I could definitely see him getting a look with the big club during the season, either because of injury or by his own merit. As long as he continues to progress, his ETA should be 2015-16.

It’s an exciting time for the Islanders and their fans. There are still questions to be answered and a few tweaks to be made (a top-four defenseman wouldn’t hurt), but that’s what training camp is for.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI

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