While the New York Islanders 2014-15 training camp has some intriguing battles on the blueline, it's up front where the surplus of bodies is most likely to result in either a new signing or an established Islander being left off the season-opening roster, with an assignment to Bridgeport -- pending clearing waivers, if necessary -- as the result.
What follows is a quick rundown of the key candidates and job openings, and how different scenarios -- barring a trade -- could play out.
First, here is how the groups, all three of them, lined up for the opening days of camp, which mostly means nothing but at least set the stage:
And here is how they set up for the initial split-squad games against the Ottawa Senators in St. John's:
It looks like a giant pool, but of course some of these players are talented but heading back to juniors, while many more are on AHL contracts and ticketed to Bridgeport.
Then there are the NHL candidates. There are enough of them for a regular like Colin McDonald to confess to feeling "uncomfortable" (in a good way) and for each NHLer to acknowledge that this camp's unspoken motto is "Leave Some Men Behind."
These are the candidates for whom each preseason lineup and line rush is pored over by fans looking for hints of what's to come (or more typically in the vocal section of Islanders Country, who has lost their head because the team dared to create a training camp line they don't agree with).
Now to the rundown...
After their impressive 2013-14, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo are sure to renew their partnership on the top line. The question is who will be on their wing -- not Matt Moulson, and not Thomas Vanek. But that question is for further down the page...and for every comment thread from here to October.
Elsewhere in the lineup, new four-year signings Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin are locks -- and likely linemates -- as are Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner. Further down the lineup, Josh Bailey (quietly effective in defensive areas, signed through the same years as Tavares, Grabovski and Kulemin) and Cal Clutterbuck (too useful to cut, even if he ends up in fourth-line minutes plus PK) are at no risk of hitting waivers.
In fact, Bailey has even been in early conversations for the spot once held by Moulson and Vanek, which would give that line a defensive conscience at the cost of offensive danger, and would drive some parts of the Islanders fanbase mad. So: Business as usual.
That's eight spots out of 12 to 14 for the opening roster. It would be a shock if any of them left except via trade. And that's not even counting...
The Young and Restless: Nelson, Strome, Lee
The pool of intriguing candidates for Tavares and Okposo's wing include three of the Islanders' most ready forward prospects. Brock Nelson has already proven proficient there in limited opportunities (but Jack Capuano is reluctant to lose his value as a center). Ryan Strome would have to play off-wing to fit (but his talent is alluring, and people have fantasized about seeing him and Tavares together since the day the Isles drafted him). Anders Lee finished 2013-14 strongly and offers the kind of size around the net that makes a trial there tempting.
While Nelson became an everyday player last season, Strome and Lee came up through mid-season promotions. In theory either could be returned to the AHL if the Isles decided to punt the decision on their roster crunch until injuries or other developments re-activate it.
Assuming he doesn't get the spot next to Tavares, Lee could continue his NHL orientation on the fourth line, where he'd be a plus player and likely get spot opportunities higher up the lineup. Or they could give him more big minutes in the AHL.
Strome is a wing option on multiple lines -- Grabovski/Kulemin and Nielsen/Grabner are two other defensively responsible pairings that might offer him a little freedom to push his offensive skill.
And Nelson, if he doesn't end up on a wing, will give the Islanders four outstanding centers. Which means...
The Incumbent Grinders: Cizikas, McDonald, Martin
Casey Cizikas had a disappointing sophomore year. That doesn't mean give up on him, but it sure doesn't mean just hand him the fourth-line center job either. Maybe he goes to wing. Maybe he moves around the bottom six and PK as needed. But his spot is under pressure.
So too are the spots for McDonald and Martin. You could picture the Islanders using any of these as 13th forwards who aren't in the lineup every night, but add that ever-sought-after energy when they do dress. Martin in particular offers a willing fighter -- like Matt Carkner on the blueline -- for those nights when opponents are looking to start a ruckus.
McDonald is arguably the best of this trio, and a close friend of Tavares. (Friends of the captain are never jettisoned...right?) I didn't mention Clutterbuck here because he's filed under the "locks," but his role is likely to be similar -- and better executed -- to these three.
More on Matt Martin
Like his linemate Cizikas, Martin has two years left on a contract paying $1 million per season. It was a fair contract at the time that gave him security and thanks for trench work but also acknowledged some truths: What Martin does, though courageous and painful, is not a lucrative pursuit in relative NHL terms.
For the player, and for the fans, that can be a difficult reality: The players we tend to love most in the darkest times -- "if every guy cared as much as Martin, we wouldn't be in this lottery" -- are the ones who better times can make surplus to needs. Martin has been an everyday player, but the Islanders' improved depth overall means he's not likely to stay that way unless his game keeps pace with that improvement.
Physical play is his calling card and he shoudn't lose sight of that. But to grow as a player Martin should probably invest as much in his puck skills and decision-making. (He wasn't included in the two groups that went to St. John's, and Jack Capuano said not to read into that. But still.) Because with new depth, the Islanders are threatening to go four lines deep.
Anyway, if you're counting at home, we've already gone through 14 forwards. The absolute max -- and this is only if they carry zero extra defensemen -- is 15. Something's got to give.
The story is Jack Capuano pushed for a claim on Conacher when Ottawa put him on waivers last season. It didn't matter, Buffalo had first dibs. But that affinity and his one-way contract ($600,000) makes you wonder if he'll get an extra long look. Though the Isles have increased their spending, they are not accustomed to spending $600,000 on an AHLer.
The Young and, Just, Really Young
While Conacher has a chance to force someone out of an NHL job, Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho-Sang do not. For their own development, each should approach this camp as if they can win a job ... but only so they can exit camp with a better understanding of what they need to improve to actually win those jobs next year. (Or the year after...or after that.)
Dal Colle is actually the youngest player in camp. Ho-Sang is the lightest at 166 lbs. If all goes well, they will be key parts of the Islanders' future. For now, they are just Calvin de Haan circa 2010: Promising, young, something for tomorrow if all goes well.
After jumping to North America to play with OHL Plymouth, Viktor Crus-Rydberg also got a seven-game taste test of the pros with Bridgeport last season. He's back in camp, but this will be just more exposure before heading back to finishing school.
[NOTE: Indeed, on the day this posted, Crus-Rydberg was assigned back to his junior club, as were Connor Graham and defenseman Kyle Burroughs.]
The Young and Job-Seeking
Mike Halmo is a late bloomer -- and it's a modest "bloom" at that -- an undrafted longshot, a guy who will succeed more on his physical approach than his hockey skill. And yet ... he is a candidate, if not now then quite possibly in the near future.
Again, still a longshot. But he is someone developing late, because it seems no one coached him about how best to use his attributes until the last year of juniors and now early in his pro career. Now they have, and they like the results.
As much as we joke about the limited -- or more precisely, the overblown -- value of hits and running into guys, that physicality has value. It just needs to be applied situationally, in proper doses, with a responsible eye on the swift and positional modern demands of the game.
That last point is where Matt Martin's game seems to have gone astray. Teams will always value the "energy" guy, the agitator or wrecking ball who is happy to throw his body around even on quiet Wednesday nights in Carolina because being sore and having an NHL job is better than the inverse. But they like them cheap, and motivated by fear for losing their job.
Mike Halmo is surely ticketed to be a key player in Bridgeport this season. But his longer goal should probably be to take Matt Martin's job...if Matt Martin keeps an NHL job.
Let's be frank: It was a really, really tough standard to live up to, but the second generation of NHL Sutters hasn't a chance of living up to the first. Brandon Sutter is the best so far, and versus the original generation he's probably only better than Rich.
Rich is the father of Lukas, whom the Islanders selected upon his draft re-entry. It would be cool to see another Sutter in an Isles jersey, even if just for a bit. Lukas has a chance to make it happen down the line, but it's not now. He'll go to Bridgeport to try to hone skills as a responsible center.
"Bloodlines" is a dicey, almost mythical topic, but Eric Cairns buys in:
"You have to have these little intangibles in order to win the battles in order to do the little things on the ice to make an impact, and I think that kind of follows those bloodlines around," he said. "Watching Lukas play over the past couple years, he has those in him."
The Isles invested more in Bridgeport free agents this past summer than they've had in the past, so Sutter hopefully adds something there. The team has a young but talented blueline, and the forward corps should be interesting -- including a player or two who made decent cases to make the Islanders.
The chief return in the Thomas Vanek rental is getting his first taste of the Islanders organization after finishing last season on the shelf with shoulder surgery.
The Islanders were evidently high on Collberg during his draft year, and director of Player Development Eric Cairns is among those pushing his potential:
"He is an offensive hockey player with really good wheels," Cairns said. "He pushes the pace hard up ice with and without the puck. He’s a tireless worker, he’s always moving, always trying to be available in the offensive end."
Now he joins a line of Swedish prospects in the Islanders pipeline. For now, he'll get help from countrymen Johan Sundstrom and John Persson in Bridgeport.
Sundstrom and Persson each got brief looks with the Islanders as the injury bug hit at the end of last season, but each is surely ticketed to Bridgeport to try to deepen their pro game and await a call -- if other injuries hit -- from the Island.
Another Chance: Skille, Zolnierczyk, Mouillierat
Among the more minor summer signings were Jack Skille and Harry Zolnierczyk. Skille, who started off right by scoring a late winner in the split-squad game against Ottawa, was a first rounder for Chicago who followed Dale Tallon to Florida (via trade), then finally got a taste of a regular NHL role with Columbus late last season. He says he's figured some things out about how to man a regular job in this league. Now it's a matter of whether he gets an opportunity to prove that sometime this season. Barring a cascade of injuries, it won't come on the opening night roster.
Zolneirczyk, meanwhile, is basically muscle, though the Brown University product had an 18-goal season in 57 games for the Penguins' AHL affiliate in 2013-14.
Kael Mouillierat returns to the organization from St. John's, but this time he has an NHL two-way deal. At age 26 he's still destined for a return to Bridgeport to start the season, but the former AHL all-star game participant and U. of Minnesota-Mankato product now at least has a chance for an emergency recall. If he gets one, it would be his first NHL game.
Eric Boulton and Brett Gallant each destroy people when push comes to fight. Both are popular among their teammates, in the well-established tradition of hockey enforcers. Both will need special circumstances to see further NHL action.
Given the depth of talent already mentioned above, it's hard to work out how there's a spot for Boulton in the NHL. But the Islanders, and several of Boulton's previous employers, have made room for that spot before.
The PTOs: Courtnall, Gillies, Langkow, Stretch, Vaughan
As noted at the onset of camp, the Islanders filled out the ranks -- and their preseason split-squad -- with Professional Tryout (PTO) contracts for Justin Courtnall, Colton Gillies, Chris Langkow, C.J. Stretch and Scotter Vaughan. Most are already signed to AHL deals and ticketed for Bridgeport. But Gillies is an interesting name (no pun intended) as a former NHL first-round pick (Minnesota, 2007, 16th) who has not been able to get a foothold with two NHL franchises.
The Wild Card: Mr. Injury
If you've watched NHL training camps and preseason roster maneuvers long enough, you know to expect this: Somewhere, somehow, an injury is going to alter who makes the opening roster.
Sometimes it's just something that ruins a bubble guy's shot; team-wise, that's almost the best-case scenario. Other times, it's a short-term injury to a regular that creates the opportunity for a longer audition for a prospect or career minor-leaguer. And then there are the catastrophic ones that alter a season before it begins. Like last year's goaltending, we're not gonna talk about that kind.
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Anyway, that's about it for a full, busy camp. The intrigue is for the jobs in the bottom of the lineup for the big club. The split-squad games with Ottawa have already happened, but back-to-back games on Oct. 2-3 could lead the Isles to keep a fairly big pool of players through the end of the preseason schedule.
No matter how that shakes out, it looks like the Islanders will have ample insurance for the injury carnage that is sure to come.