Tomorrow marks the official start of the 2019-20 season for the New York Islanders as they open training camp.
The Isles begin this new campaign coming off a 2018-19 season that saw them record 103 points, earn home-ice advantage in the playoffs, and sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins convincingly in the first round of the playoffs. Barry Trotz begins year two behind the bench after winning the Jack Adams Award, the award given to the best head coach in the league; Captain Anders Lee enters his second season as team captain after signing a brand new seven-year, $49-million contract on July 1; Mathew Barzal, the face of the franchise, begins his third pro season after getting his first taste of the playoffs; And newcomers, goalie Semyon Varlamov and forward Derick Brassard, are looking to re-energize their careers after both signing deals in the summer.
Beyond those storylines, questions remain about what the roster may look like come October 4th when the Isles open their season against the defending Metropolitan Division winners, the Washington Capitals. Here are the questions our Rob Taub thinks you should be asking:
1. Which of the youngsters have a legit shot at making the team?
Even though many seem to believe the main roster was set after the signing of Brassard, there’s definitely a few rookies that could make for some tough decisions from the team’s hierarchy. D-man Noah Dobson, forwards Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows and Otto Koivula, should all receive long looks as they seem like the four most primed to make the jump to the varsity.
Dobson, has nothing left to prove at the junior level — he’s won back-to-back Memorial Cups — and shown top-four potential. He’s also expected to put the heat on veterans like Thomas Hickey, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. Turning to Wahlstrom and Bellows, they are expected to be the next wave of goal-scoring wingers for the organization. Both of them experienced ups and downs last year, but they could really help fill a void the Islanders have been pining for the last couple of seasons.
Otto Koivula, coming off a career year with Bridgeport last season, has the intangibles that could make him a very viable threat. The 21-year-old is big, skilled, and can play either the wing or center. He would have to bowl over Trotz and Co. to steal a roster spot, but it’s not an impossible task.
2. Who will earn the top-winger spot next to Mathew Barzal?
This was one of the major questions that were being asked when last season began as well and has yet to be answered. In the playoffs, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee were slotted with Barzal and both played some of the best hockey of their career. Anthony Beauvillier, Barzal’s good friend and running mate, is coming off a down season but has shown tremendous chemistry with him since they’ve played together. Josh Bailey has also clicked with Barzal when the two have been paired. Then there’s Josh-Ho Sang. Both Ho-Sang and Barzal play with speed and love to have the puck on their stick, which makes them a unique fit. That duo would make for some electric offense. But, it can only become a reality if Ho-Sang makes the team.
3. Is Michael Dal Colle for real?
Considered a “bust” at this time a year ago, the times have changed for Dal Colle. Dal Colle finally broke out of his shell after he received his call-up from Bridgeport midway through last season. The 23-year-old displayed a new confidence and was effective in the ice-time he was given, earning him praise from Trotz.
Dal Colle is going to get his shot to be a regular in the Isles lineup on the third line, a role most likely befitting of his services. He will have competition though with Ho-Sang and veteran Tom Kuhnhackl. That should push Dal Colle to show that his emergence was no fluke.
4. What will the third line look like?
Transitioning from Dal Colle, the Isles do have multiple options for where they could go with this line. Unless something unforeseen happens, UFA pickup Brassard and veteran Leo Komarov are expected to remain as the anchors of that line. But there are options on who to side along with those two — Dal Colle being among them, plus Ho-Sang, Wahlstrom and Bellows. All three would add some much-needed youth, skill, and scoring punch. If all three can be consistent over the next three weeks, the Islanders’ brass might have a good problem on their hands.
5. What will the power play look like?
It took until the postseason for the Isles to finally find some success on the man-advantage. Now with power play coach Scott Gomez out and Jim Hiller replacing him, the power play only can do one thing — improve. It will be interesting to see who gets the QB spot on power play one with Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews. Trotz and Hiller are going to have to really hunker down and try to find the right formula from a forward standpoint. They’ll also need to figure out who can be the trigger man for the top unit. Brock Nelson would be a good choice.
6. Will Thomas Greiss or Semyon Varlamov take the reins as the starter in goal?
After last year, it’s hard to imagine that the Islanders will go with the 1A-1B formula that won them the Jennings Memorial Trophy. But it once again might be the option they’re forced with unless Greiss outperforms Varlamov or vice versa. Varlamov, 31, was brought in as the replacement for Vezina finalist Robin Lehner; Greiss, 33, is in a contract year after a fantastic season a year ago. Neither of them needs any motivation based on what the future may hold for their careers.
7. Can Otto Koivula or Noah Dobson force their way on to the roster?
Barry Trotz and g.m. Lou Lamoriello love their veterans, but these are the two players that might finally change their mindsets. Based on their performances from last year, Dobson and Koivula seem to be the most NHL-ready out of any of the organization’s prospects. They each have received a ton of acknowledgment already from the fans, players and coaches.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) September 12, 2019
8. Will Josh Ho-Sang finally find his way?
He will have to, being that this will probably be his last chance with the organization. Ho-Sang definitely will have his work cut out for him with some of the other rookies and players that have passed him on the depth chart. But above all else with Ho-Sang, it also comes down to mentality — the one thing that has plagued him since he was drafted by the team in 2014. He’s got the skill and the ability to play in the NHL. If Ho-Sang can do what the coaches ask while also keeping his head down, he might ultimately find a place on the roster.
9. Who will emerge as the top-pair on defense?
For how insane the turnaround was on defense last year, the Isles have an even better advantage heading into this season. The coaching staff has, at best, five defensemen that can all be given that that one-and-two spot and the responsibility that comes with it.
Trotz could go back to the well with Pulock and Adam Pelech. The duo was outstanding in the postseason shutting down Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Pens big guns.
He could dabble with Toews and Scott Mayfield for the role. Toews and Mayfield were placed opposite one another for the second half of the season and became a very reliable twosome.
Or Trotz can stick to his veterans with Johnny Boychuk — who’s healthy after recovering from an injury he suffered in the playoffs — and a refreshed Nick Leddy.
Dobson can also throw a wrench into Trotz’ decision making as well. He’s played top minutes in juniors the last three seasons.
10. Does Lou Lamoriello make a trade?
Lamoriello has yet to make a trade of significance during his short stint with the Isles, but now might be the perfect time for that to change. The organization has assets to dangle for a game-changer. And if the team is truly set on taking the next step, swinging a deal could finally give the team the boost what they’ve been needing for years.
Follow me on Twitter @RTaub_