With the close of their preseason schedule Friday night, the New York Islanders are expected to cut down to 26-27 players in training camp Saturday. That's a number that clears a lot of the AHLers and junior players, but likely doesn't make tough decisions on the bubble and injury guys.
[Update: Indeed the Islanders announced 18 cuts on Saturday, but none were a surprise. This summer's two top picks, Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho-Sang were returned to juniors, eleven waiver-exempt were assigned outright to Bridgeport, while five more were placed on waivers: Skille, Ness, Zolnierczyk, Poulin and Leggio.
Still, at some point final cuts will come -- NHL 23-man rosters are due on Tuesday -- and there will be casualties.
A topic that has fascinated Islanders fans all summer, and led to some seriously nauseating and repetitive spirals of angst in social media, is how the franchise will handle its new-found depth. That time is now upon us.
The free agent signings of Cory Conacher and Jack Skille -- seen by some fans as typical low-budget moves on July 1 -- quickly became part of a refreshingly deep competition for jobs once Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin were added on July 2.
Combine those with the last spring's displays of readiness by Ryan Strome and Anders Lee, and suddenly it looked like, barring trade, the Islanders would be placing useful players on waivers or demoting good prospects by the end of training camp.
And that is the welcome quandary that most NHL teams face at one time or another: Building depth and injury insurance means having to navigate the waiver wire, or else making tough choices on a few players simply because one is waiver exempt.
Another variable in this which is more art than science, as Elliott Friedman noted last month:
4. The waiver dance is an interesting one at this time. Most teams will tell you, if there’s a guy you still want in your organization, try to get him through as early as possible. That way, opponents are still looking at their guys. The later you go, the more likely someone feels their own players may not be what they hoped, so they’ll take a chance on one of yours.
Bubble Incumbents Subject to Waivers
As teased all summer, the new level of depth means there is increased pressure on regulars like Casey Cizikas, Colin McDonald, Matt Martin, Eric Boulton (who isn't "regular" by any means, but spent the last two seasons on the roster), and perhaps Carkner and Brian Strait.
Younger Players Who Now Require Waivers
Certain players have graduated from the "prospect" category and now require waivers to be assigned to Bridgeport. These include defensemen Matt Donovan and Aaron Ness, goalies Kevin Poulin and David Leggio, and offseason forward signing Jack Skille.
Fellow summer signings TJ Brennan and Conacher also require waivers, but both appear to have had good enough camps to stick, particularly if some of those injuries remain.
Brett Gallant and Harry Zolnierczyk also will require waivers, but they are not big risks and, on a related note, are frankly not big losses if claimed.
Roster Candidates Who Don't Require Waivers
Meanwhile, among the many prospects who are still exempt from waivers if the Islanders want to assign them to Bridgeport: Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Kevin Czuczman, Griffin Reinhart (a favorite at the beginning of camp to make the team) and Ryan Pulock (a dark horse, but now nursing an injury).
The Injury Factor
As discussed in our preview of the forwards, however, injuries are both the cause and sometimes the fix for this quandary: Teams need depth because players get hurt. Teams postpone decisions because players get hurt.
Lubomir Visnovsky has been out, but in his latest roster projection, Arthur Staple reported that he is expected back by opening night, but that's obviously touch and go at best.
Other injuries in play include Michael Grabner, plus Ryan Pulock -- who's had a good camp -- Matt Carkner, Casey Cizikas and Calvin de Haan.
Combined, all of those injuries would prevent, or rather punt, difficult decisions. Here is an overly extended list of conceivable candidates to make the team:
*indicates dealing with an injury
**indicates waiver exempt
***acquired after this was posted, added above
You can see that, if you eliminate expected waiver demotions (Ness, probably Skille and Donovan) and eliminate players who are injured, you already have room for 23 players plus IR to start the season -- to say nothing of the kind of group they'll have if they stay at 26-27 until Tuesday.
Having Lee, Pulock, Czuczman and Reinhart exempt from waivers means there is flexibility to avoid putting valuable players on waivers if they want to. But the injuries...how those play out between now and Tuesday will matter just as much.