When training camp begins this month, will well-regarded Islanders prospects Travis Hamonic and Calvin De Haan be battling for the same spot? Is it possible to battle for a spot that doesn't really exist?
These two steady hands from Team Canada's World Junior runners-up last winter are each coming off promising seasons derailed by shoulder injuries. But if odds prevail and neither makes the Islanders out of camp, they'll be headed in different directions -- Hamonic for his first pro season in AHL Bridgeport, de Haan for his final year of juniors in Oshawa.
Of course, standing in the way of a job for either of them are eight NHL vets on one-way contracts, as well as several other defensemen with pro experience. Both youngsters have professed their goal of earning an NHL job -- and at this point, that's how they should talk -- but it's an uphill climb at this age. That climb starts with the two rookie games in Boston vs. the Bruins next week.
After the jump, we begin a series looking at the camp candidates who are at least a disappointing veteran performance or an injury away from cracking the NHL roster. Today we focus on the defense.
Men With First Choice of Lockers
First, the incumbents and veteran free agent additions standing in the way of any young pups who hope to break through:
Mark Streit -- Can't touch this.
James Wisniewski -- Garth Snow's most exciting "play now" summer addition.
Jack Hillen -- The still-underrated college free agent could be poised for a big season, particularly if he gets better partners than what he had last year.
Mark Eaton -- The "Plan B" free agent addition is likely to log lots of tough minutes and be a key to Snow's blueline renovation.
Radek Martinek -- If a healthy Martinek is your #4/5/6 defenseman, you're living right, child. Problem is that caveat has come up every other season of Martinek's career. Twelve months ago, he drew the assignment to stop Alex Ovechkin and came out looking good. He says he's 100% now, and if that proves true it's a huge difference.
Milan Jurcina -- After riding the rare D.C.-Columbus shuttle a couple of times last year, Jurcina is used to being the odd man out. But as a free agent signing, you'd think he'd get benefit of the doubt to start off with. Scott Gordon has some experience guiding Jurcina years ago, and it was reportedly mixed.
Bruno Gervais -- The nice guy yet underperformer of the Islanders blueline suffers when he gets too many minutes. In the right assignment though, he could yet prove useful in this, his contract year. Still, a bad camp from him and an outstanding camp from one of the prospects could create a decision.
Andrew MacDonald -- This kid can play. In a refreshing breakout last year, MacDonald got his chance after Martinek went down. He ran with it, shining for half the year. His solid debut and a one-way contract make me consider him a lock;
but he's the only one of this group who can be demoted without being exposed to waivers. Once he plays 11 more NHL games, that distinction no longer applies. So if there are awkward decisions and rookie evaluations not fully vetted by the end of camp, you could picture him "taking one for the team" until an injury or a firmer team decision on who goes. Edit: Pretty sure I read this very complicated rule wrong. It's years from first contract OR # of pro games, and MacDonald has played 160 pro games (including AHL regular season and playoffs).
Men With Beards and Pro Experience
Also standing in Hamonic and de Haan's way are some guys with actual pro and NHL experience:
Dylan Reese -- I list him first because I've seen him the most, he impressed me the most, and he has the most pro experience. At 26, Reese was a nice under-the-radar in-case-of-emergency pickup by Snow last spring -- one Snow immediately needed, because as soon as Andy Sutton was traded MacDonald got hurt. A right-handed shot, the Harvard alum looked good in his first 19 NHL games last year. At minimum he'll be valuable in Bridgeport, but I confess I would've liked to see more of him wearing the NYI this year.
Mark Katic -- Before there was Andrew MacDonald, Mark Katic was due to be the first call-up. Then Katic got hurt, MacDonald got the call, Dustin Kohn got the AHL All-Star nod (and a call-up), and Katic was knocked back a few. Good health and a strong start could get his career pointed back toward the NHL, but there are other prospects pushing for time.
Dustin Kohn -- As mentioned, Kohn stepped in after A-Mac's promotion and Katic's injury. The Islanders seemed happy with Kohn, but just from my limited observation I'd put him right here on their depth chart. Regardless, he'll likely be in a battle with the other two and Hamonic to get the first available NHL minutes once one of the one-way contract guys falters or falls.
Green Young Lads
Anton Klementyev -- Technically Klementyev has pro experience -- he even received an emergency Islanders debut last year (all of 6:20 TOI). But he's as green as any Bridgeport-bound defenseman. Still a work in progress. Still an intriguing "sleeper" pick plucked out of nowhere.
Tony Dehart -- The second Oshawa "De-H," Dehart caught the Islanders' eye as a teammate of de Haan's after passing through the draft unselected at age 18. A late-bloomer to watch, he seems destined for Bridgeport for now.
Hamonic and de Haan -- de Haan's come a long way since blooming in his draft year, selecting OHL over NCAA, and shooting to emulate Scott Niedermayer. ... Hamonic told us last winter he loves to shut the opposition down and models his game after Shea Weber. So it's tempting to vault Hamonic up to the NHL roster or "first call-up" because of his size and style of play. But prudence dictates both need time. Let Hamonic establish himself at the AHL level first. Unless...
...unless he or de Haan have a camp to remember. (de Haan's been photographed for his rookie card, but it don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that opening night swing.) If that happens, then we'll know the Islanders aren't afraid to push their hottest prospects into the big time early. In truth, the situation for Hamonic and de Haan reminds me of the Capitals' Karl Alzner and John Carlson -- in the sense that both are well-regarded, much anticipated by fans, and not exactly blocked by an all-star cast of NHL blueliners. Yet both Alzner and Carlson were still eased in slowly.
For the Isles, time will tell. The fun starts next week.