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Islanders Training Camp Decisions: 8 Defenseman, or 14 Forwards?

The annual dilemma: Prospects need to get their chance, but teams need enough depth/injury insurance, which sometimes forces prospects to wait.

"Who here wants to wrestle Eric Boulton for popcorn?"
"Who here wants to wrestle Eric Boulton for popcorn?"
Bruce Bennett

In the recent Newsday piece on the Islanders' post-Mark Streit defense, Matt Donovan inadvertently captured the New York Islanders' chief preseason decision in a nutshell:

"We definitely know there's a spot or two up for grabs," Donovan said.

The question: one job or two? When the final 23 are determined for the opening of the season, will it be eight defensemen, or 14 forwards?

I haven't done league-wide research to find which is more common, but I've paid enough attention during the 23-man roster era to recall that this decision varies by team, injury situation, preference to carry an enforcer, and -- of course -- waiver exemptions that influence how much you can punt a decision until into the season.

Given the injury frequency at the position, the Islanders have tended to go the eight defensemen route but not religiously so. (And have I told you about the time they carried three goalies? Maybe another time...)

The safest tact early in preseason is always to count on someone getting injured -- sometimes in rather murky Finley-and-Matinek-last-winter situations. Lo and behold, Cal Clutterbuck is hurt with a leg laceration from the first preseason contest. While he was to be evaluated further, the words "extended time" hint at him being a candidate for IR at the beginning of the season. As Dan noted (R.I.P. PGI, a pretty good idiot), that's one potential opening for a job or extended audition up front.

But another major factor in this 14 vs. 8 decision is, even assuming full health in the ranks, which player are you okay with sitting in the pressbox for lengthy stretches? If a Radek Martinek (last year's PTO-turned-depth guy) is your eighth defenseman, you don't mind him spending time in the pressbox. An old dog like that may be missing game sharpness, but he's not missing the chance to learn new tricks.

If it's a Calvin de Haan though, you'd much rather he get more reps in the AHL. (Particularly so in de Haan's case, since he missed all but three games last season. But you get the picture.)

To that end, another detail from that Newsday piece was this forecast (emphasis mine):

Snow claimed three defensemen on waivers in the week leading up to [last] season; all three will likely make the team, and [Strait and Hickey] are in Jack Capuano's plans to play major roles.

Is that Joe Finley's music? The 2013 waiver claim from the Sabres is highly unlikely to be in the team's long-term plans, but he might be that extra (eighth) blueline body if the Isles go that way. Almost a Boulton Of The Blueline, if you will.

Alternatively, the Islanders have a crowd of one-way contracts up front as well as two highly regarded and nearly ripe prospects pushing for jobs: Can Ryan Strome or Brock Nelson force the Isles to carry 14 forwards?

Again, this is barring disastrous or convenient injury, but here is the group of 13 (Cizikas is the only one on a two-way deal, but he's not being demoted) that Strome and Nelson and maybe even Anders Lee are trying to crack:


Clutterbuck's laceration potentially creates one opening. And that's after one preseason game; you never know when the Great Groin Plague of 2008 might strike again.

As with the blueline discussion, the Isles won't want a prospect to be spending too much time in the pressbox rather than getting experience in featured roles in the AHL. But there are a few more candidates to sit game by game up front, not the least of which is, ahem, Eric Boulton.

Ultimately, this means good things for the Islanders' future. For the present, it might mean a very talented youngster (or two) waits. Again.

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