In just one week the new hockey season will begin. For the New York Islanders, there are many questions that they will face in 2017-18. After missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 campaign, the expectations are still high for the Isles. With an entirely new coaching staff and new blood ready to make an impact, this season could be something special, or the final chapter before major changes is made.
Our Rob Taub gives his thoughts on what to look for from the blue and orange this season.
To go back and find which New York Islander last won the Calder Memorial Trophy — the award for the NHL’s top rookie — you have to go back to 1996-97 when Bryan Berard won the award.
Yes, it’s been that long since an Islander won the award. This season, for the first time in over 20 years, the team has two rookies who could be in the running — Mathew Barzal and Josh Ho-Sang.
Both Barzal and Ho-Sang will be full-time NHLers this season after paying their dues in juniors and in the minors. Barzal, the 15th overall pick from 2015, has been the top forward prospect in the Islanders system for over two years now. The 20-year old has been on the cusp of making the roster before each season since being drafted, and last year made the team, only to see himself get two games before being sent back to juniors. After being sent back, Barzal tore up the WHL with 79 points in 41 games. He also was named WHL Playoff MVP as he co-captained his Seattle Thunderbirds squad to a WHL Championship title.
Josh Ho-Sang took a slightly different path than Barzal up till this season.
Ho-Sang, was selected 28th overall in the 2014 draft, amidst the controversial comments made about him. Ho-Sang’s development in the teams’ system has had its fair share of ups and downs, including him oversleeping for the first day of training camp back in 2015. It’s amazing to believe the transformation Ho-Sang has gone through as a person and as a player since that incident. He spent the last season in Bridgeport under the watch of Brent Thompson where he shored up his act and finally started to make some noise. Ho-Sang finally got the call in mid-March to the big club, and took every advantage of it. In the final 21 games, he totaled ten points. But what was more exciting, was the spark he provided the offense and to the team as a whole.
Now we come to this season, where not only will Ho-Sang and Barzal most likely be starting every night, but both have a chance to be the best rookie in the sport.
Barzal and Ho-Sang together this year could be very special. Whether they are playing together on a line or not, Barzal and Ho-Sang will become the anchors of the Isles offense behind John Tavares, Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Brock Nelson. Both will find themselves on the second or third line, depending on where Doug Weight sees fit. Whichever line they are assigned to, it shouldn’t matter, because critics should expect a show on offense.
The duo have an amazing set of skills and sense for the game. Furthermore, both can be used on the power play in a set-up role or shooter role, which was certain from what took place in the preseason. Either youngster can be used on the penalty kill as well with their tremendous speed and long reach. To throw in another wrinkle, there might be a possibility that Barzal and Ho-Sang could see first line minutes. Ho-Sang got to spend some time with Tavares on the first line at the end of last season. But, if him and Barzal could get to play with 91 on occasion, it would create another dynamic to the New York offense.
There’s no doubt the field of rookies will be worth watching all season. And that includes Barzal and Ho-Sang. Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick, the first two picks from this years’ draft, will take some time to adjust. Bruins d-man Charlie McAvoy, Phoenix’s Clayton Keller, Vancouver’s Brock Boeser, Dallas’s Julius Honka, etc. will all have an impact. So Barzal and Ho-Sang will have stiff competition. The extra incentive is what could propel both players to the top.
Now that Barzal and Ho-Sang are here, there could be big things ahead for them and the team. Barzal and Ho-Sang fighting side-by-side for the Calder will be a pleasure to watch all season.
Prediction: Ho-Sang wins the award, while Barzal finishes top-five in voting.