The 2014-15 New York Islanders are arguably as deep at the forward position as they have been in decades. The stock pile of young talent that has come from Garth Snow’s high draft picks, as well as the new additions of Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Cory Conacher have the Islanders poised to make fans forget about last seasons disappointment. Having these young players is great, however they can’t ALL be on the NHL roster. The Islanders currently have 16 forwards under contract for only 14 spots (if you include 2 forwards as healthy scratches each game). While this is an excellent problem to have, the Islanders depth leads to some interesting decisions for Jack Capuano and his staff as to who will play where. Since we have about a month until training camp opens, lets look at some projected lines for this season.
A big question this offseason has been “who will play on JT’s wing”, and I feel that Brock Nelson is the best fit. Nelson has predominantly played center, and tallied 26 points in 72 NHL games during his rookie season last year. The vacancy left by the Thomas Vanek trade created an audition of sorts for many players, and Nelson seems to fit that role the best. His goal scoring ability can be amplified playing with the talented Tavares and Okposo.
All reports indicate no issues with John Tavares’ rehab from the knee injury he suffered in Sochi, so we can expect him to be ready for camp and to continue to produce on his .90 point-per-game pace. Kyle Okposo’s breakout year in 2013-14 was a welcome sight for Islanders fans, but he seemed to struggle after JT’s injury and tallied only 6 points in the final 22 games of the season. The second half of last season aside, I think this line comes back with a vengeance and could be one of the top lines in the entire league.
Nikolai Kulemin – Mikhail Grabovski – Ryan Strome
This line has the potential to be the most dynamic of the four. Kulemin and Grabovski played on a line together in Toronto and flourished even though the team struggled. Kulemin’s play-making abilities and Grabovski’s knack for highlight reel goals has all Islanders fans excited. Ryan Strome seems to be the best fit to play on Grabo’s right wing. Strome, another converted center, was called up last season and only played in 37 games, but he’s only 21 and could really grow from logging quality minutes with veteran guys like Grabovski and Kulemin.
Nielsen is regarded as one of the best face-off men on the team, and Islanders fans know all about Grabner’s game-changing speed. The question mark here is Bailey. The 9th overall pick in the 2008 draft hasn’t lived up to the expectations and many feel that a change of scenery may be best for Josh. Personally, I view Bailey in the same light I viewed Okposo towards the end of the 2012-13 season. The playoff series against Pittsburgh was KO’s “coming out party” so to speak, and spurned him to his breakout year last season. The thought is that an increase in confidence and production on this line cloud have the same can effect on Bailey.
The “CCM” (Colin, Casey, Matt) line has been a fan favorite for two seasons now and was vital in the Islanders playoff push towards the end of the 2012-13 season. The continuity and chemistry (more “C’s”) on this line was palpable all season long. After giving up a goal, or when the Islanders need and energy boost, this line always seemed to come through. Martin’s size and toughness coupled with Cizikas in the face-off circle, and McDonald doing the dirty work in the corners makes this line one of the most reliable on the team.
That leaves leaves Eric Boulton, Conacher, Cal Clutterbuck, and Anders Lee as forwards without a line. If it were up to me, I’d keep Conacher and Clutterbuck with the team in case of injury, start Lee at Bridgeport in the AHL, and say goodbye to Boulton. I just can’t find a scenario where Boulton’s purely physical game helps this team.
It’s also important to note just how young this Islanders forward corps is. Of the 12 forwards on the 4 lines listed above, only McDonald, Kulemin, and Nielsen will be 30 when the season starts. Having young depth is something Islanders fans have not been used to, so of course there will be debates as to who plays where. Sound off in the comment section with your thoughts, and check back later this week for a look at the Islanders defense pairings.