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Projecting: Three Scenarios for Rick DiPietro's Return

So no matter what happened, there wasn't a whole lot to learn from Rick DiPietro's Bridgeport return the other night. 

No surprise, though: There simply isn't a book on how an All-Star goalie plays his first competitive and healthy game in 22 months, dating back to the 2008 All-Star Game that began this series of unfortunate events. That first game is just another step.

Still, the media had to be there to see it: What if disaster strikes? What if he stands on his head? They couldn't miss that possibility, and in any case his return is an event in itself.

But now what? I like how the Islanders have handled their goaltending situation since July 1, taking no chances by bringing in both Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron, while also being (finally) patient with DiPietro's rehab. Biron has been a pro.

Yet going forward there is a 100% chance of awkwardness. Three possible scenarios:

  • His next two AHL appearances go great. He's called up for the holidays. Scott Gordon figures out how to handle a three-goalie monster, and the Isles' 23-man roster remains taxed with two extra forwards, an extra goalie and bare-minimum six defensemen, until a trade is arranged.
  • His next two AHL appearances are so-so. But he can't "rehab" in the AHL forever. They call him up, and his first NHL start is also so-so, creating a dilemma and lots of awkwardness. The club isn't sure if it can sell off Biron just yet, but figuring that out entails more delving deeper into the awkward three-goalie rotation. Games are lost and blame is passed around.
  • His next two AHL appearances are awful. But he can't "rehab" in the AHL forever. The next move involves either some medical prognosis that justifies further conditioning, or they call him up and figure out how to work him in even though it appears it is far too soon. Any bad DiPietro performance raise scary questions -- even if it's a stinker that befalls even the greatest NHL goalies.

I don't envy the Islanders this dilemma. Even the best-case scenario involves fine goaltending but an awkward wait for a trade with (likely) Biron, who takes up a roster spot and whose inactivity and roster presence lowers leverage with trading partners. At some point, it could be such a distraction where Garth Snow is just happy to get any firm takers before the March trade deadline crush.

Of course there could be a perfect hybrid of the above scenarios, with a happy ending for all. From Dec. 16 through the end of January, the Islanders have 22 games in 45 days. There will be few periods in between games, and thus a lot of chances to get goalies work. Even if DiPietro returns healthy but understandably rusty, Gordon -- the former goalie -- could nimbly navigate these waters and get all three of them work while DiPietro (hopefully) sharpens his game with each appearance.

I'm not predicting disaster. But it's a unique situation, balancing three goaltenders who all have legit reason to consider themselves NHL #1s. The Islanders have danced around .500 all year long, which means normal losses may soon have a new scapegoat: "Well, it's hard when the goalies keep going in cold..." etc.

Then again, I'm getting ahead of myself. All of the above depends on something that hasn't been a certainty in nearly two years: That DiPietro gets through the next two weeks healthy and ready to go. So, one step at a time.

Bonus: Bearded Ricky's post-game interview: