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Casey Cizikas to IR Opens Room for...Ross Johnston

Trying (and failing) to make sense of this team’s approach.

NHL: DEC 09 Islanders at Bruins
If only they all had such game-breaking talent, this would be so easy.
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Islanders, struggling and looking lost for the last month and a half and facing a growing injury bug in recent weeks, have called AHL “physical presence.”

The move to recall Ross Johnston was opened up by placing Casey Cizikas on injured reserve, retroactive to last when Cizikas left Saturday’s blowout win over the Rangers.

Why This is Perplexing

It’s a curious move ahead of an important and challenging three-game trip to close their pre-All-Star break schedule: Andrew Ladd (already out) and Shane Prince (newly re-injured) won’t make the trip though Cizikas will, so he could be activated.

The Islanders’ bottom six has been mostly a disaster for most of this season, though it’s not all that has ailed them: Goaltending was poor early on, the blueline has been intermittently suspect and has really dipped since Calvin de Haan’s season-ending (likely) injury, and the overall team defense has been abysmal.

The elephant in the room is of course Joshua Ho-Sang still sitting in Bridgeport, and subject of one recent AHL healthy scratch. They sent him down ostensibly to get more minutes since his overall game was showing holes again on their aimless bottom-six.

But now he’s been left there in favor of recalls for Tanner Fritz, Alan Quine, Michael Dal Colle, and The Opportunity To Use Thomas Hickey at Wing Again.

And now...Ross Johnston.

That’s not player development, that’s insanity.

Why They’re Doing It, Probably

Make It Look Mean: Okay, we’ll grant the Islanders are “soft.” And while that label is stil waaaay overused and given too much importance, it can be a factor.

They don’t play a very “heavy” game — sometimes that’s the byproduct of what was once a refreshing new emphasis on skill. It’s true a squad of skilled or not-physically-initiating players can be gotten off their game by a rougher team like the Ducks or Bruins who can start stuff...and watch that group of players wait for someone else to step up.

This isn’t the answer, but it seems the staff is desperate to elicit a pulse. Create an edge. Maybe having a guy who is 6’5”, 225 lbs., racks up 100 PIM totals easily, and goes after your prospects in a preseason scrimmage will create that “edge” on the roster.

“Ross is a big aggressive forward which is something we’re lacking right now, so we’ll see if he’ll be in or not. We have some decisions to make.”

Doug Weight

Oh so maybe he won’t be in the lineup? Like maybe he’s just up to scare the others into playing with fire or they’ll be scratched?

Show me. (They just about never do this, call up a player just to sit. Unless it’s a player IslesTwitter overwhelmingly wants to see play.)

Maybe His Game Has Improved: Teams will always say this — they’ll never say “he’s not very effective at elite pro hockey, but he can bang” — but at age 23 it’s fair to believe Johnston has continued to learn how to play at North America’s AAA level.

This article in December from Michael Fornabaio of the Connecticut Post unpacks the things Johnston had been working on to be more than just an enforcer type. Better skating, being useful on the forecheck, that sort of thing that’s necessary to earn a role.

Fornabaio’s Soundin’ Off update from today after the recall had a little more from Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson, including: “...he plays heavy on the boards, heavy at the net. He’s tough as nails. It’s an opportunity for him to see if he can do it in the NHL, to bring some kind of edge, bite.”

Why It Still Makes One Facepalm

They are using this crisis point during an injury scourge and terrible two-month slump to see if he can do it in the NHL.

Granted, injuries are indeed the no-time-like-the-present time to thrust others into opportunities (hello Sebastian Aho...even Dal Colle and Fritz, too).

But it sure feels like they’ve run out of ideas.

Maybe Johnston will come up and display the kind of urgency — you have to all the way — that soft players who have grown accustomed to the good life sometimes let slip.

That’s the classic “good in the room, gives 110%” guy role, right? Playing every shift like his career depends on it (because it does) lights a little reminder fire? (The thing Jason Chimera is supposed to be doing, but hasn’t pretty much all year, and still hasn’t been scratched Because Veterans?)

What is This Team’s Identity?

But is this the coaching staff’s answer for lack of defensive discipline? They agreed after the bye week they should probably be harder on players who weren’t finishing routine assignments. (Visible results: zero.) Against the Bruins, the hottest team in the league, they finally showed a collective defensive effort (for two periods at least), but the third-period absence of pulse demands...this?

Sure, coaching in the NHL is hard: The margins, combined with the luck of the sport and the parity of this league, are maddeningly thin. You emphasize offense, let the players be creative, and it’s a refreshing change from Jack Capuano — until they no longer do the useful things Capuano harped on.

You go too hard on the defensive side, and they feel suffocated. Soft, even.

You encourage an approach of fast, puck-moving play even though you don’t have a full roster — that you had a hand in constructing, by the way -- of players who can do that. So your nightly fate depends on that top six blowing up the scoresheet.

For every Lindy Ruff (“I made the Cup final by letting my players loose while relying on the greatest goalie of all time”) there is a Ken Hitchcock (“I won that same Cup final by sucking the life out of a massive roster of elite talent turned into structured robots”). They all, ultimately, get fired for doing too much of that thing and not enough of the other. this the Islanders’ answer to their bottom-six issues? Even having some talent on the third line has produced poor results (e.g. Brock Nelson, Ho-Sang, Anthony Beauvillier getting outworked before the latter two’s demotions), so now they’ll double down on the idea of structure through predictable, static, low-skill players?

Trying not to turn this into a referendum on Ho-Sang here. (Nor am I wishing to damn Johnston: Good for him, if he can carve out some NHL games or even a role. Live the dream.) They may have reasons for any individual instance of an AHL scratch or for passing Ho-Sang up on a callup. In any individual situation the easy rebuttal to a critique like this is “we don’t know all the circumstances of what’s going on,” and that’s true, we don’t.

But we can look to the overall picture — the outcome in this allegedly “results-oriented business.”

And in that aerial view, their player development record is once again suspect; they should be able to guide Ho-Sang into a good player with offensive pop who can be trusted for a callup with a team in a death spiral. More to the point, they still can’t construct anything useful out of their bottom six, and the string of players they’ve recalled instead have done nothing. Those results, and this continued tail spin, speak volumes.