Early this morning, the Islanders worst fears were realized. John Tavares, the team’s captain, suffered a torn MCL and meniscus after falling awkwardly following a hit in Sochi. Tavares will miss the rest of the 2013-14 season.
With 22 games remaining and clinging on to their playoffs hopes by their fingertips, the Islanders have lost their top player for the rest of the way. While there is always a sliver of hope when any team isn’t numerically eliminated from playoff contention, it would be safe to say an Isles playoff berth this summer is arguably more unlikely than winning the lottery…twice.
Even so, there’s still a lot of hockey left to play. Twenty-two games is one-quarter of the season, and it could be a very long finale for the Islanders and their fanbase without No. 91 leading the way. Regardless, there’s still hope to salvage 2013-14. I’m not talking about playoffs.
The Islanders “king” has fallen. Frans Nielsen is also injured. Thomas Vanek and others are expected to be traded within the first week NHL play resumes post-Olympics. Suddenly, the roster on Long Island says “vacancy,” and the next in-line can be found across the Long Island Sound in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Ryan Strome, the team’s fifth-overall draft pick in 2011, was returned to the Sound Tigers in early January. Currently leading the team with 46 points despite playing in only 34 games, Strome should expect a call from the Islanders. Ideally, Strome will be placed in a Tavares’ No. 1 centre role on the team’s first line and power play unit, giving him the chance to succeed in a role best-suited for his talent.
Joining him should be Anders Lee, who has played alongside Strome for the better part of the 2013-14 AHL season. Like Strome, Lee has already had a brief run in the NHL (2013), and his team-leading 19 goals should be enough to offer him the opportunity to contribute either a) alongside Strome on the team’s first line, or b) play in a top-six role. A spot will certainly open up with the impending departure of Vanek.
The Islanders have also provided Brock Nelson a home on Long Island for most of this season (his first in the NHL), and it could be time to give Nelson the same opportunity to showcase himself. Over the past few weeks, the Islanders 30th overall pick in 2010 has come into his own as a middle-six forward, using his size to dominate along the boards and demonstrating his offensive ability by tallying 7 goals in 13 games from January 6 to January 29. There shouldn’t be any more games where Nelson logs only ten minutes of ice time. Brock should be featured as a top player on Long Island.
Even on defense, towering defensive prospects Scott Mayfield and Andrey Pedan could get a shot on the blue-line. Both could benefit from experiencing the speed of the NHL. Either could surprise, and cement themselves into next season’s roster, just as Calvin de Haan late in 2013. Considering the Islanders deficiencies in their own end anyways, it’s worth a shot at this stage of the season.
As every outcome of every game for the rest of the season impacts draft positioning and not playoff implications, the future starts now on Long Island. Development time is up. The shift of focus turns to the Islanders prospects, which are about to get thrust into the NHL with little warning, and a lot of responsibility. The final 22 games might be seen as “meaningless” in the standings, but Tavares’ injury creates meaningful games for the Islanders future.