As the hockey season draws near, there are many questions that will face the 2017-18 version of the New York Islanders. 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. Over the next 30 days, our Rob Taub will give his thoughts on what to look for from the blue and orange this season.
Let’s backtrack to two years ago. It was during that time that the New York Islanders had a fourth line dubbed by Don Cherry, “The Best Fourth Line Ever in Hockey”. That fourth line included Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin, who departed for Toronto in the summer of 2016. Fast forward to now, where both Clutter and Zeeker are still the key components of the Isles fourth line. Last year that was not the case.
When the season began last year, each individual was still getting high praise from around the league and in the Isles locker room. There were some doubters who believed that Cizikas and Clutterbuck would struggle without Martin alongside them, but they quickly put that argument to rest. Both Casey and Cal seemed to be comfortable as the first month of the season came to a close. Clutterbuck had five points through the first nine games of the season, while Cizikas registered four.
As the team began to struggle in November, so did Casey and Cal. They both went through droughts where they went pointless and couldn’t seem to find their footing. And what made things worse? The Isles continued to lose and found themselves in the basement. When the Isles began to claw their way little by little up the standings towards the end of November, Clutterbuck and Cizikas began to garner points and help contribute.
But even as both players began to find consistency, nagging injuries began to take their toll. In mid-December, it was revealed that Cizikas was dealing with an upper-body injury. He was deemed out indefinitely. He made his return on New Year’s Eve in a win over the Winnipeg Jets. Two weeks later, Clutterbuck was said to be dealing with a lower-body injury. Clutterbuck would return after missing a few games, but re-injured himself a short time later.
In February, the setbacks took a turn for the worst. Cal Clutterbuck was out nearly the entire month, while Casey Cizikas suffered a broken hand on February 23rd.
During the final two months of the season, both players fought through the pain, but the damage had already been done. Cizikas was ruled done for the season on March 30th while the Isles were still in the mix for the postseason. Clutterbuck would finish the season on a good note. It was revealed the day after the season ended that he was dealing with a groin strain for a long stretch of time.
So that brings us to now, and whether this season will be a bounce back for two-thirds of the Islanders fourth line?
Over the past few seasons, Clutterbuck and Cizikas on the fourth line were given the job from the coaching staff to grind the opposition out in the offensive zone and physically wear down defenses. This year could be different with a new coaching staff, which could be a determining factor to how reliable both 15 and 53 really are. They might both be asked to dial-down on the physicality so injuries don’t become a common occurrence like they did last season.
Both players will be coming in to training camp with a clean bill of health and with a chip on their shoulder after failing to stay in the lineup a season ago. It’s clear how valuable both Cizikas and Clutterbuck are as individual players and from a team perspective. The Islanders as a whole are better when both players are in the lineup because they can provide a spark or change the momentum of game, two intangibles that many other fourth-line players in the NHL don’t have.
Clutterbuck and Cizikas will need to turn back the clock to 2015-16 where they were offensive dynamos. They were able to drive the team and able to make other coaches and players know the Islanders can roll four lines every night.
If they are able to re-create that style of play and avoid injuries, the Islanders will be able to sustain consistency and find themselves in the playoffs once again.
Prediction: Both players bounce back, each have over 25 points