There are several moving parts in the Islanders season right now, some obvious and some less so. My turn on the IPB-SNY.tv hot seat (you can watch the clip and mock me in comments at this FanShot here or at the IPB site here) got me thinking about long-running questions for this season and how they'll evolve.
As usual, when speaking off the cuff, there are points I wish I'd made clearer. (Cue Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford: "It was my understanding there would be no math in the debate.") Since writing and editing allows for revisions the spoken word does not, here are long-winded expanded thoughts on the on-going Islanders questions that I see getting answers, some as soon as Tuesday night.
The bloggy goal here, of course, is to provoke your own thoughts on each question:
Got Roles? Blake Comeau, Nino Niederreiter
Niederreiter has a roster spot right now. He's on the 23-man, and only in Bridgeport thanks to a limited conditioning stint after injury. So when the Islanders return home from the West, Nino's stint will finish up and he'll be a lineup option for the first time this season.
The Islanders no doubt see a scoring role for Niederreiter, but is it on the top line as sometimes sketched, or is it more likely being eased in on a third combo? When he enters, does that mean Comeau, already scratched twice this season, is out?
Comeau wants to be part of TEH CORE here and the short-term deal the Islanders gave him over the summer no doubt sent a message that more needs to be done to achieve that. Two early season scratches underlined that message. Does he improve his stock this year, or do others like Nino enter and make him surplus?
In Short: Niederreiter is on his way, that's going to change the mix, but it's far from guaranteed to be the answer.
Got Roles? Part II: Brian Rolston, Jay Pandolfo
One oft-heard sentiment is that the Islanders' reliance on ex-Devils on their last legs must end. But saying "drop that guy!" is different from understanding what role each player has been given. Pandolfo has been a fourth-liner and PK guy (2:02 SH TOI per game) and been fine in that role. He's holding a spot until future checkers in Bridgeport are ready. Nino's return probably doesn't affect Pandolfo.
But what of Rolston? He's been given lots of opportunities on the PP point opposite Mark Streit, and regular third-line and late-game minutes. He didn't impress on that Enigma Trio third line with Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau, but now in a few games on a line with Frans Nielsen and P.A. Parenteau he's popped in a couple of goals. Jack Capuano uses him like he trusts him. I doubt Nino's return affects Rolston any time soon.
In Short: Pandolfo and Rolston both have roles they are unlikely to lose any time soon.
Wherefore This Three-Goalie Madness? Careful. Careful.
I maintain that the reason you keep three goalies entering the season is twofold: 1) You have been burned by Rick DiPietro comebacks before, and 2) Both Al Montoya (sample size, AHL history) and Evgeni Nabokov (second-half rust, poor KHL numbers, age) bring question marks. As I mentioned in the SNY.tv interview, I think coming in with three was a good mitigation of risk.
The challenge with it, rather than prevent the team finding an "identity" (Burnside), is the roster inflexibility it creates. It'd be nice to resolve it sooner than later. But at what point -- what sample size, if you will -- do you feel comfortable that DiPietro is at least healthy and groovy enough to be a strong backup?
Add to that question the rumblings of Finnish loan interest in a Mikko Koskinen, as well as Kevin Poulin's early season struggles in Bridgeport, and your position of depth could turn into a weakness in very short order. It sounds like he's okay, but Al Montoya's neck was evaluated after being run repeatedly in Colorado. In other words, the nightmare scenario is this: Nabokov is traded, Koskinen is loaned, you're down to four goalies, DiPietro has a health relapse and Poulin struggles. Cody Rosen isn't walking in that door.
In Short: Managing goalies is hard. Managing six goalies with different health issues is harder.
What Will Three Good D-Pairs Look Like?
I didn't bring this up at all in the SNY chat but meant to: The Islanders haven't yet had three clicking defensive pairs. Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic are going to be the matchup pair, and despite some stumbles I think they'll be fine there. While you'd like a much better complement to Mark Streit, for now Steve Staios has been passable and all veteran-grisly there. (He's a fitness freak, but I still worry about expecting 82 games of that though.)
The challenge, as it is for many teams, is the third pair -- or rather, constructing three functioning pairs. I think it's fair to say Mark Eaton and Mike Mottau don't work. I think it's fair to say Mottau is the weaker link, but I don't know how much better Eaton and Milan Jurcina are. Point is, defensemen like Eaton and Jurcina and Staios can give you good minutes when paired with a superior or complementary partner. But when you have two of them together, you run into problems that the opponent eagerly targets. I doubt splitting MacDonald and Hamonic to share the love is the answer -- then you have zero shutdown pair -- but something will have to be altered as the season progresses.
So does the answer come from Bridgeport? (If so, probably not now, unless Ty Wishart has fixed whatever the organization thought ailed his game in training camp.) Via trade? Only if Nino shines (far from certain), and a team wants to swap a decent #4-5 type D-man for Comeau (even further from certain).
Again, there are moving parts here, it's just not clear how or when the moves will come. When all else fails, you can always bet on an injury forcing the team's hand. Although, hopefully no injury forces Eaton, Jurcina and Mottau into the same lineup.
In Short: By the second half, the bottom pair will look different. But where new blood comes from is an open question.
Got Roles? Part III: Josh Bailey, Marty Reasoner
Bailey was left out of the Nino/Comeau shuffle question above because he's a center, and the Islanders really only have four centers on the NHL roster right now. (Comeau and Rolston have made appearances at center in their careers but should not be considered options there.) That may be all that kept him from getting the Comeau scratch treatment. Bailey's recent line "demotion" or separation from Comeau might have forced him to take a fresh look at his game, so we'll see how that goes. Whatever line Bailey's on, Reasoner gets the more defensive role, getting a higher percentage of defensive zone faceoffs than any of the other lines. Reasoner leads the team with a 52.6% faceoff win rate.
(Incidentally, I think this is why some people find Reasoner and Pandolfo "quiet" or "unnoticeable." Fourth liners in that role by nature draw the defensive zone assignments, to take the faceoff and prevent a scoring chance, while other lines are given more offensive opportunities because they have more offensive talent. Fourth liners who also fight or hit things like Matt Martin draw the attention, but that doesn't mean their linemates aren't doing important, often anonymous work.)
Anyway, for now Bailey has a role, and that role is center. If the team loses patience or finds him failing in that role, a move to wing or a scratch or (least likely of all) demotion that requires waivers would require calling up another center. But the most likely scenario in which we see a Bridgeport forward come up is thanks to injury and/or an appearance for a struggling winger first. Notice David Ullstrom has eight goals in 10 games down there.
In Short: If Bailey finds an identity, Tavares-Nielsen-Reasoner-Bailey is not a bad slate down the middle. If he doesn't though...
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Lot of Isles fan angst with the 4-6-3 start right. Several weaknesses combined with underperformers have helped create it. The Isles probably got hosed in both the Sharks OT and the Avalanche OT, but the opportunity to get hosed by officiating mistakes is created by their very thin margin error, which is created by their current roster.
Stepping aside from the passion and angst we feel, there are some interesting storylines about to unfold.