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New York Islanders Center Depth: 'The more people who can play center, the better'

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Fodder for endless summer lineup debates and napkin sketches, the Isles are deep at the most important position.

Help is coming.
Help is coming.
Bruce Bennett

After 15 seasons with the same team, Barry Trotz is all excited to start fresh in Washington. In a recent Q&A with NHL.com, he talked about how he envisions his new roster. One of the points he made is a point we at Lighthouse Hockey harp on a lot:

"What you're seeing in the National Hockey League now is the more people who can play center the better. Players can always get to the wall.

"I'm going to let them play it out. We're going to try to get the best three up the middle in terms of the people who are really good at distributing the puck and making things happen from the middle of the ice. After those three I think the fourth line will probably have a little more definition, probably more bite to it..."

The talk among Islanders fans this summer, which only increased after the signing of former Capital Mikhail Grabovski, is: Where will all the centers fit?

The beautiful answer is: It doesn't really matter.

Or rather, the implied flexibility and injury insurance is a beautiful thing. As mentioned many times around here, it's a great problem to have.

Now granted, if Casey Cizikas is one of four players used at center full-time, then the Islanders might not be maximizing their lineup options. Cizikas is a player with some visible skill, and "traditional fourth-line" attributes, but his overall numbers suggest he would benefit from better wingers than he's had. Or from being placed on the wing of a center who is better than he.

Fortunately, the Islanders have options. It's a given that John Tavares and Frans Nielsen will be two of the key centers. If you somehow needed confirmation, coach Jack Capuano told Elliotte Friedman of HNIC:

Frans Nielsen is not switching positions. "Frans is one of the smartest players in hockey. And he thinks the game as a centre."

Beyond those two (and whether you consider Nielsen a "true" 2C or 3C is immaterial here), you have:

  • Brock Nelson, who has excelled at both center and wing (his rookie-year stats indicate he makes everyone better), and who is probably good enough to be a worthy winger on the top line filling -- and improving? -- the slot previously occupied by Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek.
  • Ryan Strome, who is on course to be a top-six scorer, and has addressed his defense enough over the past two years to earn at least a 3C job. But also...his high-end offensive skill makes him an enticing possibility to line up at wing.
  • Oh, and Grabovki, the accomplished NHL center they just signed to a lucrative free agent deal. Grabovski too has a history of making his linemates better. While playing center. This is good.

Notice that we've discussed three options to fill two not-Tavares/Nielsen slots at center, and we haven't even mentioned the incumbent fourth-line center, Cizikas. Even Cizikas, a typical "energy" guy, could be deployed in select situations as a relentless menace who grabs hold of a specific opponent's leg and won't let go.

Some people think it's crazy -- it's certainly "non-traditional" -- to consider any of these non-Cizikas options for a "fourth" line. However the Isles, should they choose to go this route, have the opportunity to load up four lines in what successful coaches like Darryl Sutter and Ken Hitchcock say is essential in today's NHL.

And lest it be seen as offensive to give any of these talents just "fourth"-line minutes at even strength, all of them can pick up minutes via special teams (Grabovski on the penalty kill, Strome on the power play, Nielsen and/or Nelson on either or both).

The bottom line is, the Islanders have options and insurance at what is the most important forward position.

This is why it's been an exciting summer for the Islanders. This is why their fans are more excited for this coming season than any in the last several years.