Casey Cizikas was not handed an easy NHL baptism.
Our post on who's left on the free agent market produced an interesting debate -- which will become less interesting as it's rehashed throughout the summer with little new info -- over what the center situation will be like for the New York Islanders come training camp.
The best guess here is that the Isles don't know the answer yet. Certainly there are more candidates than there are job openings, but it's not clear who among the candidates can win those jobs, nor which positions they will fill. (Several "centers" are likely better off at wing, while others may at least require easing in at wing before handling the pivot.)
Center is a key position loaded with responsibility for any team, but particularly so in the Islanders' scheme, and they have only two centers who can unquestionably do the job: John Tavares and Frans Nielsen.
Marty Reasoner was brought in last year as a guy who had handled defensive center roles in the past while providing some bonus offense, but he struggled along with struggling linemates and, to add more confusion, was deployed in puzzling ways. But even assuming Reasoner rebounds to his previous form (a big assumption at age 35), that's only three "proven" NHL centers. Who else steps up?
Clarification of Terms: "Second" vs. "Third" Center
First, for discussion purposes, let's get one thing out of the way: Islanders fans and even GM Garth Snow will talk of whether Nielsen is a true "second-line" center, but before we get into this we need to be clear about how lines are truly used, because this label leads to some confusion. The NHL isn't like your EA Sports video game, where you just make your top-scoring center #1, your second-highest scoring center #2 and so on.
Tavares is clearly the most dangerous offensive weapon, and consequently he gets a lot of the offensive zone opportunities but also draws a lot of the tough opposition. When the opportunity is there, Isles coaches will put the Tavares line out for O-zone draws. Nielsen, like the other non-Tavares centers, doesn't get offensive zone help like that at all.
But Nielsen also faces the opponents' best. If it's not clear from the past several seasons of lighting Lighthouse Hockey fires in his honor, Nielsen faces the toughest situation of any Isles center (with all due respect to the pressure and attention heaped on Tavares as the go-to scorer).
Both face tough competition; Nielsen faces them in his own zone, the position where it's obviously easiest to be scored against and hardest to produce points. Nielsen producing 47 points from this role (32 at even strength) isn't too shabby -- and though I wouldn't argue for giving him easier roles, his offensive ability is still underrated.
Which gets us to the whole "second" vs. "third" thing. With Nielsen handling his assignments so well, the Islanders don't need a Joe Nieuwendyk or Peter Forsberg to come in and be a "true second line center." (Granted, that would be totally awesome. It's just not happening.) What they could really use is a player who can produce offense in "easier" assignments while facing the opponent's third- and fourth-best lines.
In this sense, picture the "second" center as a guy who can handle the opponent's top six and still come out on top (as Nielsen has regularly done for several seasons without interruption), while the "third" center is more of a player you look to for secondary scoring rather than for neutralizing the opponents' best offensive threats.
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Offense Against the Opponents' Third/Fourth Lines. Who Can Do That for the Isles?
The Islanders have some internal options. They're just unproven:
Josh Bailey has not been able to do that -- not from the pivot, at least, so he's now undergoing a move to wing, where you hope he'll be productive and better able to exercise his offensive skills.
David Ullstrom has played center both in Sweden and in Bridgeport, but his offense didn't take off until he was moved to wing in the AHL. He's a great candidate to make the NHL squad this season, but not a great candidate to do so at
wing center [ed. Sorry for the initial typo. Projecting Ullstrom as a wing].
Brad Boyes was once billed as a center and was even asked to play there some by Buffalo last season, but it's not his best position and it's not why he signed with the Islanders. To make best use of Boyes' talents, they need him in offensive situations, whether it's on the top line or more sheltered on a third line/secondary scoring line.
Reasoner is ... clearly not someone upon whom offensive expectations should be heaped. He wasn't exactly put in many offensive positions last season anyway, but ideally you're using him in a more defensive role regardless.
Casey Cizikas is interesting, because he doesn't profile as an offensive weapon but he produced some in that role in the AHL. He profiles more as what Reasoner was supposed to be -- and in fact, in Cizikas' brief callup last season he was used in heavily defensive zone roles against pretty decent competition. Small 15-game sample for him, but if he can handle tougher roles then he opens up easier assignments for those who can do damage. Like...
...Ryan Strome? Strome is someone who everyone would probably prefer play in the AHL this season, but by rule he cannot be assigned there. So like Nino Niederreiter and Josh Bailey before him, it's either NHL or another year in juniors. Some talk of easing Strome in on the wing, such as next to Tavares -- but again, Tavares now draws the tough checking from opponents, so swapping Strome into the departed P.A. Parenteau's spot is asking too much at this age.
But what about in easier, "sheltered" situations? A couple of seasons ago, an 18-year-old Jeff Skinner used such situations to produce his way to a rookie of the year award. Could the Isles get offensive production from Strome in that slot? It's possible, though it would require NHL-level mastery of the position already from Strome, as well as the right wingers to help make magic. Maybe Ullstrom or Bailey could be such wingers. Maybe.
The ideal scenario as the signed roster stands right now might be for both Cizikas and Strome to be able to handle NHL jobs while Reasoner rebounds to NHL adequacy. Such a scenario would give them options (Strome on the wing at times?) as well as allow players like Boyes, Ullstrom and Bailey to play on the wing where they are more productive.
But hoping prospects are ready carries its own risks, as does hoping Reasoner plays more like 2010 Reasoner than 2011 Reasoner. If the Isles were to splurge a little and sign, I don't know, a Kyle Wellwood for the role, they'd be mitigating those risks.
Disclaimer: I don't know what Wellwood is asking after putting up a situationally impressive 47 points last season. It may be more and longer than what makes sense for a team like the Isles. The point is, questions at center remain.