Joshua Ho-Sang is a first-round pick (28th overall, 2014) who has played only 43 NHL games and is only 22 years old. (He has 22 points in those 43 games, by the way, rarely in a top line or power play role.)
By all rights and conventional norms, it is absurd to ask whether his time with the Isles has already come to an end but for the official transaction coming across the wire.
But so little with Ho-Sang’s career thus far has been conventional.
His independent and creative skills alone elicit debate, making old-school hockey types nervous. (It works for Mathew Barzal, another pass-happy forward who defies categorization. But Barzal excels on an entirely different level, tracks back more, speaks out less.)
Then there is the off-ice stuff that has been gone over a time or 10: Criticizing Hockey Canada for its roster decisions in his juniors days. The oversleeping on the first day of his first Isles camp. Speaking out last spring about “accountability” after Doug Weight called him out — all the way down in the AHL, where he’d been demoted and was playing through injury, the way old-school types like it.
All these things have been attached to Ho-Sang like a brand, one he’ll have to carry until he reaches 150, 200 NHL games and people just think of Ho-Sang the NHLer.
But that’s the question, isn’t it? Is Joshua Ho-Sang going to make it as an NHL regular? And is this season his last chance to do so with the Islanders?
His 43 games are the fifth-fewest by any 2014 first rounder. (Another, with only four games, is fellow organizational question mark Michael Dal Colle.) It would seem that if he’s going to make it, this is the pivotal season:
- His entry level contract expires next summer.
- The Islanders’ NHL roster is long on...bottom-six players and short on talent.
- There is a new regime in place that has at least publicly said he’ll get a fresh start.
- Talent-wise, that new regime has every incentive to turn him into a valuable player.
Going against him, however, is one of the catchphrases Lou Lamoriello cited when he joined the Islanders this summer: “Culture change.”
In Ho-Sang’s favor, one could read “culture change” as a breath of fresh air, a sign that the team will not wallow in development paralysis with prospects, will hold all players to the same standards. On the other hand, one sees all those bottom-six summer signings and you can imagine if those are the culture setters, then Ho-Sang will not be a fit.
And the very first challenge, given all the NHL veterans the Isles have clogging the bottom of the projected NHL roster, is that Ho-Sang could very well open the season in the AHL. How he handles that, if it happens, will be important in the new “culture.”
What Does Ho-Sang Need to Succeed?
So to answer the headline question, yes this is Ho-Sang’s last chance with the Isles. There is no better moment than now to evolve his game, make his mark, and grab a regular role. If it doesn’t happen this season, they will surely find him a new home elsewhere.
But just as Ho-Sang has every incentive to do what the Lamoriello-Trotz regime asks of him, they have every incentive to help him become a key player, rather than waste an inherited prospect in what they want to be a quick reset rather than a long rebuild.
Trotz’s quotes after summer prospect camp reflect this:
“He’s got NHL skill, he’s got NHL ability,” new coach Barry Trotz said on Sirius XM NHL Network on July 5. “From my standpoint, there are certain expectations we are going to have for him on and off the ice. I think he realizes a lot of his things in the past, where he got himself in maybe a little bit of, I don’t want to say trouble, but just in a situation where he comes across maybe poorly, that’s just a young man who is just growing up.”
“We talked about his game, his future, what he wants to do, what I expect. Things we can improve and some things that are said about Josh. He’s a talented, talented young man. He sees the game a little differently than some people and I think it’s getting a real balance of a dialogue with a young man like that, that I think the upside is tremendous.”
As Trotz said, and by a lot of measures, it’s clear Ho-Sang has the talent to make a difference in the NHL. And Barry Trotz has worked with his share of unconventional talents.
“It’s on us,” Trotz said this summer. “It’s finding out what makes him go, what makes him tick.”
And for Ho-Sang, it’s down to whether he can find the balance between his own freelancing — which is both creative, but can be destabilizing when it creates too many turnovers — and the typical systems structure a coach will demand. Likewise, he needs to demonstrate a consistent commitment to the defensive side of the puck.
When you’re a superstar, you can get away with a lot. Alex Ovechkin was allowed to try to do too much or take too long a shift for many years because he’s Alex freaking Ovechkin. There’s a payoff. Likewise, John Tavares and his long shifts and legendary pedestrian backchecks. Superstars get away with that because they bring irreplaceable talent to the table.
Ho-Sang is not a superstar. But he still has a chance to use that talent to be a very good player.