This is not something I imagined saying last summer when we gave Valtteri Filppula’s signing the “for some reason” treatment, but here we are: Valtteri Filppula’s injury casts a real threat to the Islanders’ fight for good playoff positioning and their chances of succeeding once they get there.
The Islanders on Wednesday morning announced that the 35-year-old will miss four weeks with an upper* body injury. (Codeword note: It’s his shoulder.) Later that day (and while I was finishing up a “Filppula’s injury hurts, they can’t stand pat, they should at least recall Fritz or something” post), they announced the recall of Tanner Fritz from AHL Bridgeport.
Injury Outlook: Well into the 1st round
Though playoff dates aren’t announced yet, we can expect them to begin by mid-week following the end of the regular season on April 6. Conservatively, that means playoff series should start opening by April 9 or 10. A four-week timetable for FIlppula takes us to April 16, likely two or even four games into the first round.
So whatever solution they settle on, that is what the Islanders will have to make work as they try to 1) secure a decent playoff position, and 2) reach the second round.
Why it hurts
Despite hanging on to their standing at or very near first place in the Metropolitan Division, the Islanders have been struggling over the past month. Their play has tapered, and they’ve been unable to build a lead in the home ice standings race. They’ve been swept by good teams (Bruins, Flames), only narrowly took points from multiple visits with bad teams (Senators, Oilers), and have one more meeting left with the Flyers who’ve beaten them twice the past month.
In general, their “A” game has only rarely been there since they stomped the Leafs on behalf of Islanders fans during the previous captain’s return to the Coliseum.
But back to Filppula. He has hardly been great, but he’s been pleasantly reliable for most of the season. Clearly our worst fears last summer, while not unfounded, did not come to pass. (As for Leo Komarov, signed for four years vs. Filppula’s one year, well...Uncle Leo’s very popular in the room and entertaining as advertised. So there’s that.)
It’s frustrating that the Islanders won’t try more things to give the Filppula-Komarov duo a better chance of succeeding — like adding some youth by keeping Michael Dal Colle in the lineup, or (gasp) recalling Joshua Ho-Sang — but even given those conditions, at least Filppula was a stabilizing factor for a lineup that really needs every piece functioning.
What they can do: Stand pat, get creative, or try puttin’ on the Fritz
It’s been speculated that the Islanders’ recent up-and-down results relate to an under-talented team, playing at max ability all season, finally running into more talented opponents who 1) respect them more and 2) are stepping up their games as the playoffs near. Both suspected causes have merit. Whatever the reasons, it shows in the results.
Taking Filppula out of a lineup that the coach is already reluctant to change — and don’t get me wrong here, Trust in Trotz for without him this band would surely be nowhere — makes things even tougher, especially if it doesn’t force the organization and coaching staff to try something more...
...which, after this morning’s skate, looked like they were going to try: Hey, just make do with what you have:
Trotz says for now, the plan is to fill Filppula’s spot down the middle “by committee.” Komarov, Kuhnhackl, maybe Beauvillier. Didn’t rule out call-up (though seems unlikely). Said he hasn’t even thought about 7 D. This should be interesting. #Isles— Brett Cyrgalis (@BrettCyrgalis) March 20, 2019
Anthony Beauvillier has had another up-and-down season, but he at least offers an interesting prospect at center, his original position. Either Komarov or Tom Kuhnhackl (who “played it a bit in junior”) in that role at the NHL level is a frightening prospect. So, doing nothing and seeing what happens to an already listing team was gonna be scary.
So that turns our attention to Bridgeport, where Otto Koivula has been a revelation during his position switch, but is still very green for North America. Ho-Sang, as previously mentioned, doesn’t help at center but could inject some creativity in a team that is leaning hard on slower veterans. With Komarov a fixture in the lineup, Kuhnhackl a dicey one to add, and Andrew Ladd struggling after returning to injury, that’s a lot of “cagey but slow” veterans to carry in a thin lineup.
The Goldilocks “not too risky, not too status quo” option was to recall Fritz, who has proven reliable in a bottom six role during past recalls, bringing some creativity and defensive responsibility to the role.
Although I am frequently in the “Boy, (roster) life under Lou looks a lot like (roster) life under Garth except with lower numbers, less hair, and a Hall of Fame coach” camp, I am actually a little heartened by this move. I think Fritz is one of those tweener NHL/AHL players who can be effective — particularly under coaching by Trotz.
As Travis and Jonathan wrote last fall, based on Fritz’s previous appearances there is reason to believe he’s a decent bottom-six option. It’s not an exciting option, but neither was Filppula, to say nothing of the other veterans mentioned above.
Of course, most of those previous Islanders appearances have been on the wing, not center, though Fritz has been at center in the AHL with the Sound Tigers. It remains to be seen what Trotz will ultimately do here. Fritz looks like he’s at the point where he will adjust as needed to get more NHL time, but his size and ability may still not be enough to be effective in the middle.
No matter what, the Islanders will be tested without Filppula. It’s the price you pay for a lineup that has impressively outperformed expectations, but is hardly deep.