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Ho-Sang and the Healthy Scratch: an Islanders drama in three acts

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“It’s a Show About Nothing yet about EVERYTHING at the same time.” - Playbill

New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils
See? He can start and stop.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Joshua Ho-Sang’s first AHL healthy scratch came in November, when Bridgeport Sound Tigers coach Brent Thompson derided his lack of focus (or “swinging”) in both games and practice. Even at that early time, the Islanders were already in a deep hole within their division, and so a scratching for their minor league affiliate, while hardly the end of the world, sure as hell seemed like the end of the world.

Ho-Sang, who has three goals and 12 assists in 25 AHL games this season, was back in the lineup soon. But a few more sit downs followed. Which brings us to this week.

Tuesday

Ho-Sang’s latest DNP was Tuesday, when Thompson sat him against Hartford with his team having lost four straight. Bridgeport lost that game, too, and afterwards when asked about Ho-Sang’s status, Thompson was vague in his reasoning. But CT Post’s Michael Fornabaio put some perspective on it.

Thompson was complimentary of Josh Ho-Sang’s morning skate, and if he was really in the doghouse I doubt he’d have dressed for warmup. Asked the coach to expound a little. “The effort level was there” this morning, Thompson said. “He has to have that, the effort on and off the ice. It’s every day. Even in the weight room, taking the opportunity to get stronger. There’s a lot that goes into these kids’ developing to where we project them to be.”

Despite Fornabaio’s fireman-like efforts, the match had already been struck for red hot Islanders Fan Angst. The story was out and it was assumed that the scratches had Ho-Sang on the bus to Bustville.

For some, just being in the AHL alone was a mark against him. That’s on the extreme end of the spectrum. But with relevant questions about how Islanders management has drafted and developed players over the last decade or so, a skilled first rounder getting scratched for “effort” makes an already aggrieved fanbase even more anxious and angry.

We want to think that reinforcements - preferably a high-scoring, play-driving cavalry - are on their way. This doesn’t help.

But, as usual, there’s more going on.

Wednesday

A day after the Hartford game, Thompson and Ho-Sang both spoke to the Isles Buzz podcast about their relationship. Thompson credited Ho-Sang with improving over the year, but emphasized that the player needs to be more consistent and be better on defense in order to juice his offense.

For me, the biggest thing is his play away from the puck. It’s starts and stops, simplifying it. And when he has the puck in the offensive zone, that’s when we want to see his gifts. That’s when we want to see his creativity. That’s where you can move and basically do what you want. Create offense. That’s your job. But it all comes from a function of moving his feet, being in puck support and all those little details that make a difference.

For his part, Ho-Sang sounded disappointed but cognizant of what the coaches were asking of him. Still, by trying to explain the situation, he inadvertently made it worse.

I think our team, we play a more blue collar game and I’m a more skilled player. So it’s meshing into that. Sometimes, they don’t want me to make plays. They’d rather me just dump the puck in. So it’s finding that out and working with the coach to get as mush rope as I can by staying within his game.

“Sometimes, they don’t want me to make plays” is the money line. That’s what we’re afraid of. That a guy drafted for his electric playmaking skills is being molded into another meat-and potatoes third liner. The Islanders have enough - probably too many - of those already.

Later in the interview, Ho-Sang sounded acutely aware of exactly what everyone outside the arena is thinking regarding his future.

I’ve had people ask me, “what are you doing? Why is he so mad at you?” and people think he hates me. But it’s not like that at all. He just wants me to be better.

Looks like someone’s been reading his Twitter responses...

Finally, Ho-Sang gave us a glimpse into the human side of player development. This is the part we don’t see. As Islanders fans, we assume the worst. But Ho-Sang - who’s open to a fault when it comes to interviews - speaks glowingly of Thompson and throws his own bucket of cold water on the situation.

The biggest thing is just building the bridge with my coach. I’m sure that I can cause headaches sometimes and then vice versa. I struggle with things that he does. At the end of the day, the best part of the whole situation is that Thompson, our head coach, is probably the most caring guy I’ve ever played for. All he wants is for me to be successful. He’ll bring me in the office and we’ll talk and we’ll go over stuff. And he’s very great about it and he wants me to succeed which is the most important thing of all about it. It’s the most encouraging thing for me and helped me transition through this.

Despite the meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society, it remained to be seen how both coach and player would respond to the episode. And how we would respond to the response.

Thursday

Now having lost five straight, the Sound Tigers hosted Springfield with Ho-Sang was back in the lineup. And after all that, how did things work out?

Bridgeport won 4-3 in overtime, and Ho-Sang finished with a power play score, three shots on goal and a fancy assist on Travis St. Denis’ game-winner. The sequence shows exactly the type of creativity that Thompson was talking about (not sure about that drop pass, but hey, whatever).

Via Fornabaio, both Ho-Sang and Thompson got good feelings from the game. The player felt defensive confidence from the coach and the coach saw what he wanted to from the player. Smiles all around.

“Today, when the clock was at 7 minutes, I didn’t think he was going to put me on the ice. But he kept playing me. He kept playing me right up to 2. That was huge for my confidence. Personally, I think that’s what allowed me to make that play in overtime. Having that confidence from your coach, that gave me peace of mind, that he can trust me — or he’s trying to.”

That play in overtime, the culmination of a wild shift of bounces and caroms and spin moves, finished off Ho-Sang’s return to the lineup after two games out.

“It was definitely a step in the right direction,” Thompson said. “His pace, his effort, his puck decisions — and he still got his points playing the right way away from the puck.”

So everything’s cool now, right? Er... not quite.

Today and the Future

More than a story about Ho-Sang’s development, this three act play is a glimpse into the experience of following a team with no margin for error and a rebuild that has all but stalled.

Islanders fans are grasping for life, looking for any sign of hope in a season basically lost before Christmas and with little remaining salary cap space and a looming expansion draft. For a team with this many questions, the ups and downs of a single prospect - no matter how trivial they may be - are massive.

Every single word said by both of the main characters will be analyzed ad nauseum for months if not years.

One game or one play won’t change everything for Ho-Sang and Thompson. The coach wants consistency, the player is still young and prone to mistakes and not shooting enough. There will probably be more scratches and losses and he said/he said during the rest of the season. The team taking their time developing players and expecting those players to be more responsible with the puck isn’t wrong.

But it is excruciating to follow. And frustrating to watch while the big club fights through its own issues. And there’s no guarantee that the players will become consistently productive in the NHL.

To have a chance at breaking the cycle of mediocrity, the Islanders need players like Ho-Sang, Michael Dal Colle, Anthony Beauvillier and Mathew Barzal to not just work out, but be among the best of their draft classes when it’s all said and done.

Confidence in the current NHL administration making that happen is very low.