While we generally poo-poo the significance of specific preseason games and lineups around here, the New York Islanders are entering a week that will see three contests have major hands in who makes the opening night roster, who gets demoted to AHL Bridgeport -- and quite possibly, who gets claimed via waivers or otherwise ends up on another team.
The homestretch of the preseason schedule begins tonight in Boston, with a game conveniently televised on NHL Network (U.S.). Among the lineup and intriguing job battles, Islanders fans will get a look at the following:
- Top defensive prospect Griffin Reinhart, who assistant coach Greg Cronin has hinted is behind Ryan Pulock in the race for a roster spot
TJ Brennan, signed to a one-way deal and possessing a cannon (though not as lethal as Pulock's), one that could really help the power play if Lubomir Visnovsky is out long
Matt Donovan, who could re-insert himself into the fray, especially if Visnovsky's back spasms linger long enough to alter the season opening roster
The Forward Logjam, Beginning on Line 1
- No one knows who will end up on the left wing of line 1. Cory Conacher gets a somewhat curious look there tonight in Boston. Which leads us to...
- Brock Nelson seems a candidate there too, but Jack Capuano understandably likes both him and Mikhail Grabovski at center. Moving Nelson from center would create more room for Ryan Strome, ho has an opportunity tonight centering the second line.
- Anders Lee and Jack Skille, also wing candidates who have had good camps, are on Frans Nielsen's flanks.
On that topic, Newsday's Arthur Staple had plenty to offer in his preview, including:
There's also room for a 13th forward among those five, plus Colin McDonald, who did what he had to do in Brooklyn on Friday and will be hard to let go.
Strome is in a much tougher spot. Capuano told Newsday on Monday that he sees Mikhail Grabovski, who played the last two games on the left side, as a center. Capuano is reluctant to move Brock Nelson out of the center position, but it seems he may have to if Grabovski is only a center.
Tavares, Frans Nielsen (who centers Lee and Skille on Tuesday night) and Casey Cizikas appear to have the other three center positions locked up. So Strome has to beat out Grabovski and Nelson to become an opening-night player. That seems unlikely.
For me, there is an intuitive solution here: Go with talent, one through four, at center. Move Cizikas to wing. Let Nelson or Grabovski or Nielsen handle a mix of minutes and defensive roles that includes de facto "fourth-line" center without leaving Strome out.
But we'll see. Maybe the staff is using psychological ops to challenge Strome to step up and take over a game, under threat of a Bridgeport return. Or maybe they're as confused as many of us: A lot of bodies here, all of which would be useful to have as the all-elusive depth over the course of the season, but many at risk of waivers.
For both the forward and defense conversations, injuries are the wild card of final cuts. Beyond Visnovsky, Calvin de Haan is also day-to-day; Matt Carkner too.
The Backup Backup Goalie
Kevin Poulin was given multiple chances to be an heir apparent of some kind in goal, but has yet to grab it. That led to him filing for arbitration in the offseason, securing better AHL compensation since that seemed his ultimate fate. But he and David Leggio are both dressed tonight, and they'll compete for the Bridgeport lead and first emergency recall.
Cory Conacher – John Tavares – Kyle Okposo
Josh Bailey – Ryan Strome – Nikolay Kulemin
Anders Lee – Frans Nielsen – Jack Skille
Matt Martin – Casey Cizikas – Cal Clutterbuck
Thomas Hickey – Matt Donovan
Kevin Czuczman – Scott Mayfield
Griffin Reinhart – TJ Brennan
That's how things look for tonight, minus some key "locks" for the opening roster. On paper, not a bad lineup for Boston though it tails to the young and inexperienced in the back end. (The Bruins likewise will have an almost-full lineup.)
Afterward, games Thursday and Friday to close out the preseason schedule in preps for final cuts after the weekend.
The depth Isles fans wanted is here. Now, after a long summer, the answer to how it's all sorted out is less than a week away.