As the New York Islanders get set to enter week seven of their NHL schedule, the team is performing about as well as anyone, even the most optimistic Islander fan, could have expected.
A poor performance in Tampa Saturday night dropped the Isles to 11-6 on the young season, their 22 points place them in second place in the congested Metropolitan division. The Orange and blue faithful have seen a lot from their team already this year, but one thing they have yet to see is, well, their actual team.
The Islanders have yet to play a single game this season with a full roster, a fact, coupled with the influence of so many new faces on the squad, that makes their early season form even more impressive. With Michael Grabner resuming skating last week it seems as though the Islanders will finally be playing at full strength very soon. Grabner has yet to play a game this year, he has been sidelined recovering from sports hernia surgery.
With Grabner’s return seemingly imminent, Jack Capuano and Garth Snow have a decision to make with their forward corps. With Cory Conacher playing himself out of the lineup he seems a good candidate to be released to make room for Grabner on the roster, but Grabner’s presence will also require a player to take Conacher’s spot as the nightly healthy scratch.
There are a few options for the Isles brain trust to explore, these are the top five options, in no particular order, according to yours truly:
1) Bench Casey Cizikas. Cizikas has not had a very strong season centering the Isles fourth line and the Islanders have natural centers all over their roster. It is an option, but not the most attractive one. Yes Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Mikhail Grabovski can all play center, but none of those players are fourth line players. Saddling them with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck will render them far less effective than keeping them in their current roles on the team.
2) Demote Anders Lee. Lee can be sent back down to Bridgeport in order to clear space for Grabner, allowing Conacher to remain the team’s odd man out at the NHL level but also keeping the team from having to make a permanent roster decision. Grabner would slot right in to Lee’s role on the third line, therefore not disturbing the chemistry of the other lines.
3) Bench Matt Martin. Martin is a fan favorite, but he is also likely the forward on the roster least likely to make an offensive play. Swapping him out for Grabner would completely change the team’s dynamic. Yes, the team would lose a lot of grit, but they would become far more dangerous. Grabner could slot into a role on the line with Cizikas and Clutterbuck, he has shown in the past he can be a threat offensively even when not playing many minutes.
4) Keep Grabner on IR until there’s an injury or the team cools off. This is an option with the way the team has been performing, but once a dip in form occurs, Grabner would have to be inserted. Keeping a hot team intact is a good decision, but not at the expense of making the team better, and Grabner will make this team better.
5) Bench Josh Bailey. Bailey is just recovering from an injury himself, and he is usually public enemy number one in Islander country. Bailey has been playing well this season, but given his role on the team there’s a chance that he could be sacrificed to make room for Grabner because they occupy a similar role. Grabner would slot nicely onto the wing next to Frans Nielsen, as the two have shown excellent chemistry in the past.
The Isles depth at forward was always going to create a logjam once the entire team became healthy, but it is an issue that is ultimately a positive. Team’s are always going to suffer injuries throughout the year, so having more than 12 capable NHL forwards is a must for any team that is serious about being a threat for the playoffs. In the past a six week absence from a top nine forward would have impacted the team dramatically, but Grabner’s absence has hardly gone noticed with a team as deep up front as the Isles are.