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Q&A: MSG Networks AJ Mleczko talks all thing Isles ahead of the 2021 season

AJ Mleczko has become a well-regarded name among Islanders fans the past few years.

Since the start of the 2018 season, you’ve seen her in-between the benches for home games giving her fantastic insight and as an in-studio analyst alongside the wonderful Shannon Hogan on the Isles’ pre-and-post game for MSG Networks. She also does terrific work as an in-game analyst for the NHL on NBC.

A former gold and silver medalist and member of the USA Hockey Hall of Fame, Mleczko is a legend and one of the smartest hockey minds in the game. And with Isles on the cusp of their 2021 season opener against the Rangers, IslesBlog chatted with her on all things Islanders.

Q: Who do you think is poised to have a breakout season in the Islanders’ lineup this year?

“I think there are certainly a few players that will step up this year,” Mleczko said. “Anthony Beauvillier is one player in particular that I believe is poised to take another step in his development under Barry Trotz’ guidance after starting to break out last year. I really liked the way his game evolved from the beginning of last season. And then the way he came out of the pause and started to explode onto the playoff scene in August. I also think there’s a very good chance Noah Dobson will live up to the expectations that are set for him. There is pressure on him to have a big season, especially with the departure of Devon Toews and the unexpected retirement of Johnny Boychuk. But he definitely has the skill set. And he had the introduction last year by traveling with the team, getting 30 or so games under his belt. So I think he is in a good position to thrive under that pressure.”

Q: What will a full-year of J.G. Pageau mean for the team and his potentially young line mates?

“J.G. Pageau is potentially the most important piece of the Islanders puzzle. It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of his game. I think the way he entered the lineup last year after coming over from Ottawa at the trade deadline – signing a long term contract on the same day and endearing himself to his teammates right off the bat by getting into a fight in a game against the Rangers. He plays exactly the way Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz want an Islanders center to play. And he really solidifies the team’s center depth up and down the lineup. He has proven time and time again that the can play any style of hockey. And he will bring his all, 100% every time he plays. He plays power play and penalty kill. So he will log some big minutes. And I think now being able to start the year in camp and learn Trotz’ systems, as opposed to coming in at the trade deadline, will be instrumental for Pageau in his ability to take that next step and become even more vital to the Islanders and to that young core he may be centering on the third line.”

Q: Just how vital will Andy Greene be to Noah Dobson’s development? What will Dobson benefit from the most?

“I think Andy Greene’s mentorship will be critical to the continued development of Noah Dobson. Last year, Johnny Boychuk was an incredible veteran presence on everyone. But Boychuk really did take him [Dobson] under his wing as a defense partner and teach him how to be a pro. And I think that will now continue under the mentorship under Andy Greene. He’s been around for a long time, he plays the right away and he brings that same kind of leadership as Boychuk. Clearly Dobson has the skills and the ability to play in the NHL. The next step now is to understand how to be a pro and understand all the little things that go into being a top tier NHL defensemen. And Andy Greene will help guide him.”

Q: What do you feel Ilya Sorokin will have to adjust to the most with being new to the NHL?

“The biggest adjustment will be the traffic in front of the net. The chaos in front of the net is something that’s pretty unique to North American style hockey. And it’s a little bit of a smaller ice surface too, so its crammed in there. So the angles may be a little different. But the angles will likely come quickly to him. And he has two phenomenal goalie coaches in Mitch Korn and Piero Greco to help transition him to this North American style. And he’s very lucky that he also has a countryman and goalie partner in Varlamov, wo will be a mentor to him. Barry Trotz has been very open discussing the way Varlamov and Greiss were amazing to him in the bubble this summer and helped him adjust in terms of the team, the language, how the practice is run and what he can expect. And I think he has worked very hard to endear himself to his teammates. I think they’re really excited to see how hard he’s working for them. So in turn they are going to work really hard for him and the defensemen in particular will be clearing out in front him so he can see those pucks.”

Q: What has your experience been on the Islanders broadcast team and what’s your thoughts on the growing number of female voice on hockey and sports broadcasts?

“The Islanders team at MSG Networks is awesome. And I am so excited to enter my third year with them. I think we have a lot of fun. It’s truly a team. Everybody is working for each other and trying to put out the best show that we can. As far as women in hockey, I think it’s great that there are so many great voices out there throughout the sport – both men and women. But I love that there are more and more women getting these opportunities. Lindsey Fry, a former Harvard and Team USA player, who won silver at Sochi and is a friend of mine, is now the new radio voice of the Coyotes. Caley Chelios of course works on the radio for Tampa Bay when they are on the road. So there are more and more women getting involved, more and more female voices. I think the more people start to hear women’s voices, the more they get used to it. As more and more women out there start to talk about hockey, whether they are a reporter, analyst or play-by-play, the more normalized it becomes. And then more opportunities for qualified people, whether they be men or women, become available.”

Make sure to catch Mleczko on the Islanders’ opening night coverage with Shannon starting tonight at at 6:30 on MSG+2. Brendan Burke and Butch Goring will have the call starting at 7PM for all Isles fans.

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