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Islanders Preseason Question: Which young winger wins a job?

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Barry Trotz tries to keep in mind he’s “in the winning business,” but trust in youth is hard.

Chicago Blackhawks v New York Islanders
Remember: “Mike Bossy makes drop passes, Patrick Flatley gets it deep.”
Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Given the pace of his development in comparison to most of his draft classmates, few at this time last season would have expected Michael Dal Colle to make such a strong case for a spot in the lineup that Islanders fans were upset when he was scratched in spring of 2019.

But that’s how things can change.

Also this time last year, Otto Koivula was still in the “hey, might one day be a serviceable winger” category. Some injuries and a prescient hunch from Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson later, Koivula looks like he could be a future answer at center for the Islanders.

The Islanders have some questions on the wings as training camp looms, though the answers may depend as much on the health of veterans as on the performance of young up-and-comers.

As Arthur Staple at the Athletic noted last week, if Cal Clutterbuck and Andrew Ladd are both healthy by opening night, “youth may not be served.” Throw into the mix Tom Kuhnhackl — who passed through waivers on the eve of last season but was kept with the club all year — and you have the recipe for veterans blocking the way, Snow as it ever was.

In an interview with Brian Compton of nhl.com, Barry Trotz said all the right things in this regard (emphasis mine):

“...we’re in the winning business. One of the things you don’t want to do is always fill your spots and not allow potential guys to grow. Right now, there’s some spots open. I think last year, Michael Dal Colle was a guy that a lot of people were saying, ‘You know, I don’t know if he’s going to be able to play in the National Hockey League.’ Now, I think he’s getting it. He’s looking like a player that’s going to play in the National Hockey League and be very effective. He’s got good hands, he’s a big body (6-foot-3, 204 pounds), he’s got his pace into his game and I think he’s got his confidence back. Sometimes, you don’t want to block a guy [from] making that next step. There’s opportunity for Dal Colle and Ho-Sang, and even guys like [Oliver] Wahlstrom, he’s got fantastic hands, and that release is probably at the top end. He’s was one of the better players in the playoffs (for Bridgeport of the American Hockey League), so I’m interested to see how he does as well. There’s opportunity this year for a number of guys.”

Coaches and general managers each have a duality to their natural inclinations that at times will sound contradictory:

Coaches are in the winning business, but they are also in the “limit my unknowns” business. They default to veterans in situations where they can’t control the unpredictable, so they rely on the player they know best — the guy they can trust to proverbially dump it in — even if the alternative brings more upside. Trotz is right to say he wants more, but it’s also true that when in doubt, he’ll bring a Kuhnhackl to a gunfight.

Likewise, general managers are in the winning business, but for them the yang of their duality is that they are also in the asset management business. Seldom do they expose a veteran to waivers when a young waiver-exempt player will do. Decisions in early October are often made with fears of a terrible November run of injury luck in mind. Once the season starts, injuries and IR maneuvers have a way of creating flexibility just when they need it.

Meanwhile, GMs at times will truly want their coach to go with the younger gun — Lou Lamoriello, probably less so — but they will bide their time before making the roster move that forces the coach’s hand.

So here we are in September looking at the Islanders training camp ahead. The goalie spots are locked, and the defense is so crowded that a sacrifice may be required to make room for double-Memorial Cup champion Noah Dobson. The main intrigue is at forward — specifically at wing, assuming Derick Brassard doesn’t make a Jan Kovar impression at camp.

Given the age and health questions involved, you’d assume the Islanders would prefer Ladd returns to full health, but slowly enough to be plausibly IR’d to start the season. Perhaps Clutterbuck too, though Staple’s report had him looking like a better bet to arrive ready to go.

So who wins the final spots?

Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows and Otto Koivula all need that “hey, spots are open” motivation, but you know these waiver-exempt forwards would have to offer stratospheric performances (and likely see a run of injuries elsewhere) to steal an opening night job.

But Dal Colle and Ho-Sang are another story, no longer carrying the waiver exemption and now on fresh “prove it” second contracts. Ho-Sang may be on his “last chance” while Dal Colle is in the pole position, but no one would have said that this time a year ago.

That’s how things can change.