Realistic 2013-14 Expectations for New York Islanders' Top Rookies
Dropping both games of a split-squad scrimmage against the Calgary Flames isn't how the New York Islanders wanted to start the 2013 preseason, but their special teams came up huge against the New Jersey Devils in a gritty 5-3 win Thursday night.
Anders Lee, on an all-rookie line with Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome, scored on the power play to get the Islanders off to a good start, and they never looked back.
The Islanders have one of the more talented prospect pools in the league, and a lot of the team's rookies are very close to being NHL ready.
Players like Lee, Nelson and Strome should all see ice time in some capacity, but what kind of expectations are realistic?
Here, we'll take a look at five rookies that are all likely to play with the Isles this season, whether it be for the entire season or a handful of games, and speculate the type of point production each will contribute, as well as the role each will take on.
Brock Nelson, Center
There's room for a rookie to make some noise as a third- or fourth-line center for the Islanders this season.
The roles are that of offseason acquisition Peter Regin and Casey Cizikas to lose, but Brock Nelson should get a fair chance to showcase his skill set in the remaining preseason games and prove his worth.
The University of North Dakota product had a breakout season in his final year at the college level, scoring 47 points in 42 games. He continued his solid play at the next level, tallying 25 goals and 27 assists in 66 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers last season.
With Regin and Cizikas in the fold, it's doubtful Nelson is going to start the year with the club. However, Regin hasn't been completely healthy in a long time, and Nelson has a good chance to be the first call-up for the Isles if the role available suits him.
Cal Clutterbuck's injury probably doesn't open things up for Nelson like it does fellow rookies Ryan Strome and Anders Lee, but Nelson is certainly the most well-rounded of the three. He's the type of player that can play special teams and be trusted in the defensive zone and the faceoff circle.
The Islanders will give him at least one or two call-ups when he doesn't crack the opening roster, and if he plays well, he could stick with the club. A modest rookie campaign of approximately 30 games played, five goals and seven assists seems about right.
That being said, the potential is certainly there for him to seize any opportunity presented to him and force his way into the lineup as a regular.
Ryan Strome, Forward
The Islanders moves this offseason showed that they aren't interested in rushing the development of their rookie forwards.
Last season, secondary scoring was a concern—albeit a minor one—for the team. Their second line struggled mightily at times. In the postseason, when things were clicking, it was clear of what was potentially there in Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo. Now that prospects are a year older and depth is deeper, it'd be shocking to see head coach Jack Capuano show the same level of patience with that line again this year.
Michael Grabner, who scored 16 goals in the shortened 2013, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard will certainly be asked to contribute on the top two lines from time to time, if not on a regular basis.
But if things aren't firing on all cylinders for the upstart Islanders, the logical thing to do would be to turn to Ryan Strome.
Strome isn't just the Islanders' top prospect, he's a top NHL prospect.
He skated on the left wing with Brock Nelson at center and Anders Lee at right wing in the Islanders' 4-2 loss to Calgary in a split-squad preseason opener in Regina, Saskatchewan. It's a possibility this could be a preview of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers' top line if and when the Islanders are mostly healthy up front.
Speculation has been that Strome would move to the wing and receive a better chance to make the team because of it, and with Cal Clutterbuck possibly out for an extended period, according to Arthur Staple of Newsday, Strome may be a good candidate to join the Islanders to start the season. However, Lee is likely a more logical fit for Clutterbuck's bottom-six role.
As for the veterans on the second line, Okposo will ride the momentum that last postseason brought to a solid start this season, and Grabner will continue to produce as a fringe second-line player with lightning speed. Bailey already looks great in preseason, scoring two shorthanded goals against the Devils.
With all that being said, Strome will likely be limited to the AHL for the time being. Ten games played for three goals and three assists would seem appropriate. Like Nelson, however, if Strome gets his chance to take the ice and runs with it, it wouldn't come as much of a surprise if Coach Capuano makes room for him to be an everyday fixture in the lineup.
Anders Lee, Center/Right Wing
Maturity isn't a word associated with many prospects, but it could be what gives Anders Lee the upper hand in competition preceding the regular season.
Lee, who contributed a goal and an assist in the Isles 5-3 preseason win over the Devils, was named captain of Notre Dame in his junior year, a rarity in college hockey.
“He’s a very mature young guy and he leads by example in his training and academics,” his former head coach Jeff Jackson told NHL.com reporter Greg Picker in November 2012. “I think the guys have great respect for him and they still like him as a person."
In his limited playing time last season, he scored a goal and an assist in two games, but he was also on the ice for all four goals scored against the Islanders in that span.
Head coach Jack Capuano will expect Lee to clean up his defensive play and adapt to the speed of the game at the NHL level this time around.
"For some of the young guys, it's more what they do away from the puck that gets noticed," Capuano told Arthur Staple of Newsday. "I expect [Lee] to show what we want him to do."
Lee's ability to permanently transition to the wing and fine tune his defensive play will need to be what sets him apart. Brock Nelson may be the most well-rounded forward the Islanders have waiting in the wings, but Lee is the one they'll want to see playing the wing on their third or fourth line in the near future.
If the 6'2", 225-pound power forward can play a tighter defensive game, he may see playing time as a bottom-six forward, especially with Cal Clutterbuck injured for an extended period.
Cal Clutterbuck saw doc again today. Looking like 4-6 weeks, but #Isles will make official determination soon.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) September 19, 2013
Lee is a better fit to fill in on the bottom two lines over Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome. Barring any other extended injuries to bottom-six players, 15 games, three goals and four assists should be achievable for Lee in limited ice time.
If Lee plays with Nelson and Strome in the AHL for most of the season, the hope would be that he's producing almost a point per game with the Sound Tigers.
Matt Donovan, Defenseman
Matt Donovan doesn't have the same name recognition as Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Strome or even Brock Nelson, but the former fourth-round pick is likely to have the biggest impact of the bunch with the Islanders in 2013-14.
His performance with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers has been exceptional since he made the jump to professional hockey from the University of Denver.
In 153 games with Bridgeport, he has 25 goals and 69 assists. Perhaps more impressive is how he developed more of a mean streak last season, tallying 112 PIMs in 75 games.
At 6'0", 195 pounds, Donovan has transformed into a complete defenseman at the AHL level, and he's ready to graduate to the NHL.
He's a better option than Joe Finley or Matt Carkner as the sixth defenseman for the Islanders. While he and Andrew MacDonald are both left handed, they're likely to start the season as the third pairing for the Isles. The two skated in the first preseason game of the year together and would round out the team's defense nicely.
He could also be a contributor on special teams and help fill the void left by former captain Mark Streit on the power play. He scored four goals on the man advantage last season for the Sound Tigers.
Appearing in 70 games may sound like a high number for Donovan, but he's mastered his game in the AHL, and being an everyday defenseman in the NHL is the next step. As a third-pair D-man, his numbers should be solid for a rookie—five goals and 25 assists make for a good ballpark figure.
Griffin Reinhart, Defenseman
Griffin Reinhart projects as an effective first-pairing defenseman in the NHL.
His progress in junior hockey suggests it's more a matter of when, not if.
With great defensive depth, however, it looks like there would have to be a multitude of injuries out of the gate for Reinhart to make the team and surpass his last year with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
The Edmonton Journal reports that Oil Kings' general manager Randy Hansch is not expecting Reinhart back, but with all of the depth ahead of him, it's hard to envision him sticking with the team for even the nine permitted games before the Islanders would have to make a decision, let alone the entire season.
Andrew MacDonald and Joe Finley are due to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, but unfortunately for the Isles, they would have to make a decision on them pretty quickly if they wanted to make room for Reinhart.
There's no doubt the Islanders will look for the right time to get Reinhart the experience he needs. It's not likely Reinhart will play for the Islanders this season.
The Islanders would have waive Finley or send Matt Donovan down to have Reinhart play with the team for the first nine games before being returned to Edmonton. With Aaron Ness and Calvin de Haan also available as call-ups, there's just no reason for the Islanders to rush the rookie and have him spend the entire year on the third pairing when he could benefit from another year of development in junior hockey.