Competition In Training Camp Has Lived Up To Advanced Billing And Thensome

By Daniel Friedman
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Opening night is just days away, which means the clock is ticking for the Islanders to finalize their roster.

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Perhaps it’s ironic that Yom Kippur coincides with training camp, because the (short-term) fates of several players vying for spots will be sealed. If you’ve had a rough audition, now would be the time “repent,” so to speak.

But I digress.

For weeks and weeks, we’ve talked about the glut of forwards under contract and the insane amount of depth the Isles have in that department. It’s a great problem to have, but one they need to solve — and, by the looks of it, one that has become even more difficult to solve.

Before, it was whether or not Anders Lee would make the team. Now, it’s whether or not Lee, Cory Conacher and even Ryan Strome will survive the final round of cuts.

That’s bad news for Lee, who at least had a chance going into this thing. Not anymore; he’s all but certainly headed to Bridgeport. There’s just no room at the moment.

As for Strome, it’s a complication that shouldn’t even exist, but because of the failed Josh Bailey experiment, it does. The Isles rushed Bailey, and have now gone to the complete opposite extreme; they’re moving prospects along like molasses.

They did it with Nino Niederreiter, who was wrong for the extent to which he expressed his displeasure, but was right for being annoyed.

They did it with Matt Donovan and Nelson, keeping them up with the big club only to scratch them every other night.

They did it with Strome last season, and they might just do it again.

I sense a pattern, and a disturbing one at that. It’s almost as if the Islanders can’t get out of their own way when it comes to bringing their younger players along.

A common observation I’ve seen from people lately is that they haven’t noticed Strome or haven’t been overly impressed. You know what? People would notice him more if they were looking for the right things and tempered their expectations. He’s a kid — he needs to be able to hold his own, not look out of place and show some flashes of potential. Forty points or more would be more than adequate.

That’s it, that’s all you need from Strome right now. Anything else would be gravy.

What should the Islanders do with him, send him to Bridgeport? What exactly does he have left to prove down there? How in the world is he supposed to learn to adjust to the NHL by not playing in the NHL?

Additionally — to say that, unless he proves beyond doubt that he’s ready to be a top-six forward, he should be in the AHL is completely absurd. By that logic, so many other future stars wouldn’t be in the NHL right now. With few exceptions, how many of these kids are proven from the get-go? It doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen without full exposure: they learn in the NHL and get better.

It’s like telling a brown belt karate student that he can’t train for a black belt because he hasn’t shown he deserves a black belt. That’s how absurd this notion is.

Strome needs to be on the opening night roster. If he isn’t, the Islanders have made a mistake for which there is absolutely zero justification. Period, end of story, done, insert synonym for “finished” here.

On a brighter note, one player who’s really made a case for himself is Conacher, who looked real solid alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo on Tuesday night in Boston. He hustles, drives the net, has good vision and offensive instincts. He’s a dark horse, but a very worthy candidate — if not for the top line, then at the very least a roster spot.

ADDITIONAL OBSERVATIONS:

• He’s gotten a lot of mixed reviews the last few years, but Nikolay Kulemin has me convinced. He’s effective in multiple situations and skates well. If he can do all that and score 20 goals, he’ll make a real solid impact.

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• Ryan Pulock is like that sleek new iOS that’s still in beta but begs you to download it anyway. Send him to Bridgeport, let him develop. He’s awfully close, but he should start out in the AHL.

• As for Griffin Reinhart, I’d say he’s held his own and deserves to be on the opening night roster. I like what I’ve seen.

MY OPENING NIGHT ROSTER (Assuming all injured players are healthy by the start of the season):

Offense:

Brock Nelson-John Tavares-Kyle Okposo

Ryan Strome-Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolay Kulemin

Josh Bailey-Frans Nielsen-Michael Grabner

Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck

(extras: Jack Skille, Cory Conacher)

Defense:

Travis Hamonic-Calvin de Haan

Lubomir Visnovsky-Griffin Reinhart

Thomas Hickey-TJ Brennan

(extra: Brian Strait)

Goaltending:

Jaroslav Halak

Chad Johnson

Let’s see what it looks like nine days from now, but that’s the team I’d put out there. As for what the Islanders will do — it’s anyone’s guess. Whatever the case, we’ll know soon enough.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI

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