The New York Islanders recently proved to the rest of the NHL that they can score goals, netting an average of 2.81 GPG last season. But despite ranking seventh in the NHL in regular-season scoring during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, the Isles haven’t been an offensive juggernaut in recent years.
The Islanders ranked 28th in the league in goal-scoring average in 2011-12, 15th in 2010-11, and tied for 20th in 2009-10. Those middling-to-poor offensive numbers can be somewhat attributed to the lack of a top-line right winger.
In fact, the team has all but posted an ad on Craigslist each of the past four seasons begging for the services of a top-flight RW to pair with John Tavares and Matt Moulson on the team’s first line since they both joined the team in 2009.
Over those past four seasons, that Craigslist ad has returned some short-term answers at right wing, but nothing the organization can point to as a lasting solution.
Former Islanders P.A. Parenteau and Brad Boyes were serviceable forwards, and current roster guys like Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner have seen limited time on Tavares’s wing in the past, but no winger has come along to fill the void long-term on what could potentially be one of the NHL’s highest scoring lines next year.
As the team heads into training camp this September, the first-line right wing carousel is still spinning. Luckily for head coach Jack Capuano, he’ll have several options to slot in at winger on Tavares’s right. Let’s take a look at the top five candidates Cappy will have at his disposal this season…
(A quick note: the candidates aren’t necessarily listed in the order in which they’re likely to get the job. A closer reading of the list reveals that they may or may not be listed alphabetically. Just, you know…for what it’s worth.)
Josh Bailey (6’1” | 190 lbs. | Shoots: L)
Fresh off of signing a five-year, $16.5 million contract that will keep him in blue and orange through the 2017-18 season, Bailey has shown flashes of brilliance during his Isles tenure that make him an interesting candidate to become the goal-scoring winger Tavares and Moulson have been lacking.
Bailey has a hard, accurate shot that coaches and fans alike have been begging him to make better use of, especially after a run of four goals in six games last March. Perhaps putting him alongside Tavares will give him added incentive to get the puck on net more often; despite Tavares’s undeniable goal scoring ability, he’s a natural playmaking pivot, which would open up the ice for Bailey to get his shots.
The only downside to placing Bailey on the top line is that it would mean breaking up the Okposo—Frans Nielsen—Bailey second-line pairing that was last year’s late-season catalyst during the team’s playoff push. That chemistry—seriously, watch each player’s positioning on this goal—between Okposo, Nielsen and Bailey is what made them one of the NHL’s most effective lines during that time.
But, Cappy might be incentivized to promote Bailey to top-line duty as he searches for the spark that might ignite the soon-to-be sixth-year winger. Bailey was originally projected as a 30-goal man earlier in his career—which may be stretching things—but playing with Tavares and Moulson would almost certainly boost his scoring numbers this season.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard (5’10” | 171 lbs. | Shoots: L)
In the newer, faster, less clutch-and-grabbier NHL, it’s safe to say that speed kills. With referees less inclined to let faster, more skilled players get held up by defenders when they’re entering the attacking zone, a guy like the 5’10” 171-lb. Bouchard can really shine.
Injury concerns aside—and they’ve been well documented—Bouchard has the skill set to make him a versatile offensive weapon if Capuano and his coaching staff see fit to put him on the first line. By leveraging his speed and playing off of Tavares in space, Bouchard would highlight Tavares’s passing ability. (His quick hands would also allow him to make the most of those passes.)
And of course, it goes without saying that Bouchard’s speed is a nice foil for the less-than-fleet-of-foot Moulson on the opposite wing.
Bouchard has seasons of 59 points, 57 points and 63 points to his credit, which are very enticing numbers considering he was putting them up in the relative obscurity of Minnesota. Alongside a superstar like Tavares and a goal-scorer like Moulson, those numbers would easily replicate themselves on Long Island.
Which is exactly why the prevailing sentiment across the Internet is that Bouchard is the most likely candidate to get the top line right wing spot out of training camp, although how long he’ll hold that spot is difficult to say.
(But we’ll get to that later.)
Cal Clutterbuck (5’10” | 203 lbs. | Shoots: R)
Considering his résumé—he’s put up respectable point totals for a so-called “grinder”—Clutterbuck on the top line isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. When you throw in the fact that he’s a righty shot and has experience playing on a line with Tavares, the case for adding Clutterbuck to the Islanders’ top offensive unit becomes more interesting.
In past seasons, much had been made about Tavares not getting the kind of protection on the ice that he deserved. And since he’s one of league’s premier players, it’s hard to disagree with that consensus.
With Clutterbuck on the ice for every one of Tavares’s shifts in 2013-14, opposing players would think twice before trying to rough up the future Islanders captain. Clutterbuck racked up over 1,000 hits in his first three NHL seasons and hasn’t slowed down since.
He’s a 20-to-30 point-per-year player who would complement the duo of Tavares and Moulson with his physicality, while also showcasing his ability to put the puck in the net. Having a tough-guy presence and scoring ability might make him an attractive winger in the eyes of the Islanders’ coaching staff.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Clutterbuck get some playing time on the top line this season, if only for a change of pace. Then again, his permanent placement on the first line might suit the team well, depending on how the rest of the lineup takes shape during training camp.
Kyle Okposo (6’0” | 212 lbs. | Shoots: R)
Okposo is another natural right winger with a good combination of skating ability and scoring touch, which makes him a solid choice to slide in at wing on the Moulson and Tavares line.
Islanders fans have been through the ringer with Okposo, as his slow starts to the season and apparent lack of effort—Capuano’s all-too-famous “battle level”— from time to time have left the Isles faithful wanting more from the former no. 7 overall draft pick.
To his credit, Okposo picked up his play in the second half of last year’s shortened season and throughout all six games of the Isles playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins (see here and here for examples), finishing with 28 points in 54 total games. Provided he can carry that momentum into this season, he’d be an ideal choice for top-line minutes as the right-handed shot the Isles so desperately need up top.
Okposo has the physical tools and high-caliber skating skill to shine on the top line with Tavares and Moulson. The coaching staff wants him to be more willing to drive the net—rather than rely on his patented toe-drag—to increase his scoring numbers, but there’s no reason to think a motivated Okposo would be a detriment to the first line.
Offseason reports have noted that Okposo is currently training with Tavares in Ontario as a means of jump-starting his season. Perhaps that off-ice time will translate to on-ice success as Tavares’s linemate.
Ryan Strome (6’0” | 177 lbs. | Shoots: R)
The true wild card in the list is Strome, who isn’t even guaranteed to make the Opening Night roster out of training camp. It’s more than likely he’ll start the season as a member of the Isles’ AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, unless he wows the big club’s coaching staff in September.
Strome is considered the organization’s top prospect, hands down, and has the skills—and stats—to match the hype. Last season, he recorded 94 points (34G, 60A) in just 53 regular-season games played for the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL.
A centerman by trade, Strome is being groomed to play right wing at the NHL level and has logged some ice time at the position in the minor leagues, notching two goals and five assists in 10 games played for the Sound Tigers in 2013. The hope is that he will be the eventual top-line winger to complete the Moulson and Tavares line for the foreseeable future—which puts Bouchard on the clock as far as how long he’ll have in that role.
Whether Strome be playing winger with Moulson and Tavares on the Islanders’ first line may not be a question of skill, but of size. Weighing in at only 177 pounds, the knock on Strome is that he needs to bulk up before making the jump to the NHL.
Despite his relatively low weight, he’s a solid skater with great balance and has the type of vision that makes him a true power play threat, as he’s able to thread the needle with the puck. Those attributes may allow for Capuano and his staff to overlook Strome’s lack of muscle in favor of putting him next to Tavares on the ice beginning with the Isles’ first game of the season on Oct. 4.
As always, thanks for reading us at EyesOnIsles. Keep it right here for all of your NHL offseason coverage and up-to-the-minute Islanders news. Follow me on the Twitter (@MichaelWillhoft) so we can talk about whether Kyle Okposo will get off to a fast start, or if Ryan Strome is capable of making the team out of camp, or whatever else you’d like.