The New York Islanders' trade of Michael Grabner cleared a $5 million salary (and $3 million cap hit) from the 2015-16 payroll, but it didn't totally clear up one of the few training camp roster battles that fans have anticipated all summer.
Kirill Petrov's entrance into the mix -- seven years after the KHLer was drafted by the Isles, and nearly given up on by fans -- created roster intrigue after Grabner survived draft day trade rumors. But the signing of training camp PTO Steve Bernier to an actual contract, on the same day Grabner was dealt, means the Isles still have the proverbial "healthy competition" at the forward position.
Still, the team always penciled the non-physical Grabner as a top-nine-or-nothing forward, whereas Bernier is more of a utility player. So while Bernier steps in where Grabner left off, the swap does create a little more room for Petrov.
Training Camp Roster Management
Before we run down the forward candidates, however, a few frequent Isles habits to remember, which ostensibly impact how to forecast Petrov's chances:
- Petrov, signed to a one-year entry level contract, is exempt from waivers this season. He can be moved to Bridgeport easily.
- Bernier, a veteran on a one-way contract, is not exempt: If the Isles waive him, it doesn't save them money nor cap room.
- Training camp injuries very, very often have a way of punting these decisions before a decision is necessary. (See Clutterbuck, Cal (2013) Carkner, Matt (2014), Grabner, Michael (2014), and on and on.)
- The Isles have a history of maximizing roster flexibility, using waiver-exemptions to pack the roster until injuries or performance forces a tougher decision.
The last point above is reference to a long history of Isles "doing the Donovan," or doing the Lee/McDonald." In other words, if the Isles aren't sure a player is quite ready for full-time NHL duty, or if they think he could benefit from more minutes -- and perhaps the motivational kick -- of starting the season in Bridgeport, they'll do it. They did it with Ryan Strome and Matt Donovan a few seasons ago and with Anders Lee last fall. (Note that Lee was soon recalled, and had a good enough season to earn a big contract this summer.)
Similarly, they kept McDonald -- who required waivers -- up with the club over Lee to start 2014-15, and they kept Donovan -- who by then also required waivers -- around last season rather than risk losing them to start.
The Petrov Challenge
So what of Petrov then? They sure didn't bring him over to stash him in the AHL. And he didn't make the oceanic jump after so many years in the KHL just to ride the Bridgeport bus. But that's both an option and an implied threat. He'll need to show he's ready, show he can contribute, show he can play "the way we need to play," in the oft-repeated words of Jack Capuano.
So far, so good, on that front. It's only the proverbial "one preseason game," but Petrov impressed the right person in his debut Monday night against the Flyers:
Capuano praised Petrov for driving to the net and using his body.
"[We’re looking for] guys that compete, guys that want it," Capuano said. "Guys that are tough to play against. We have to create an identity and an environment that we want to build off last year. Some guys are doing it right now; you can’t go through the motions. There’s too much competition here at camp."
(Expect more on that topic from Newsday later.)
As Petrov faded from ballot consideration on our Top 25 Under 25 polls -- for reasons, as with Anders Lee, that were purely "that guy's never gonna sign" sentiments -- I held out hope he'd one day still come over and bring his mix of skill, size and middle-six ability to add to the Isles depth. Much like Nikolay Kulemin, Petrov isn't going to be a flashy high-end scorer, but his history in the KHL showed a player with good smarts and enough skill to be a productive two-way player.
So barring a complete disappointment, he will be in an Islanders uniform at some point this season. But will it be on opening night?
If the Islanders just go with the forward regulars from last season as "locks," we'd see some version of this in the top 12 (the line combos are obviously variable):
Lee - Tavares - Okposo
Kulemin - Grabovski - Strome
Nelson - Nielsen - Bailey
Martin - Cizikas - Clutterbuck
Assuming they leave the fourth line intact, as they habitually do, that leaves one or two spots to fill out the 13 or 14 forward spots to start the season. (That number of course also depends on how many defensemen they carry, though in terms of waivers there is room to carry just seven defensemen. The standard roster of 23 includes two goalies plus some forward/defensemen combo of 14/7 or 13/8)
Michael Dal Colle and Mathew Barzal are top forward prospects with bright futures, but them surviving into the season before being returned to juniors would come only via a major run of injuries to others.
So Bernier and Petrov could, and should, grab those final two spots. Bernier pencils more as a traditional 13th forward, whereas Petrov should be more than that. What's more, if Petrov isn't playing in the regular 12 to start the season, they may want to get him reps in the AHL while they still can -- all the while managing the delicate balance of keeping him happy in his first season in North America. (It's worth noting that right now he has an in-team translator in Kulemin.)
For now, Petrov puts pressure on all of the regulars. If there is even a minor injury before the opener, expect an IR listing and a chance for Petrov to grab a top-nine role. As always with these, it comes with a healthy dose of *barring injuries and major surprises.