3 questions heading into NY Islanders training camp

Minnesota Wild v New York Islanders
Minnesota Wild v New York Islanders / Steven Ryan/GettyImages
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Rookie camp has wrapped up for the NY Islanders, as the NHL players report to camp today for their physicals and will hit the ice tomorrow.

While much of the roster is the same as the Isles finished with last season, many of the players and coaching staff look at this as a fresh start with a new group. The only new faces who were signed during the off-season are Julien Gauthier, Karson Kuhlman, and Brian Pinho.

"I look at this as a new group," said Lane Lambert. "I look at it also with the way we finished the season in terms of our last stretch of games where we played very, very well heading into the playoffs. Those guys, Pierre and Bo, came in and helped us out a lot, so to me, it's exciting to start fresh with that group that we finished with.

According to Lambert, around 60 players will attend camp to start as the rookies integrate with the older players, sharing the ice and lining up alongside one another during the pre-season. Isaiah George, William Dufour, and Tristan Lennox stood out during rookie camp, but how will they fare against the stiffer competition?

According to CapFriendly, the Islanders are currently $486,625 above the salary cap, meaning Lou Lamoriello has to make at least one roster move before the season begins to be cap-compliant.

Aside from finalizing the roster, Lane Lambert has some decisions to make regarding how his team will line up come October 14th against the Buffalo Sabres.

Here are three things to keep an eye on as the Isles begin training camp:

Who's playing center on the first line?

When the Islanders acquired Bo Horvat last season, Mat Barzal shifted to wing on the top line while Horvat slid into the center. The two found immediate success playing alongside one another until Barzal's regular season-ending injury ended the experiment.

It seems Horvat is the better option at center for the long term, as he's a cut above Barzal on the defensive end of the ice. Without the defensive responsibilities a center has to be mindful of, Barzal will be freed up to be more creative with the puck in the offensive zone, benefitting himself and his teammates.

The Islanders aren't divulging any secrets regarding what they plan to do, but Lambert believes the team knows which direction they'd like to head in.

"We'll move things around a little bit in training camp, but you know, I think there's a pretty good indication of what we're going to we're going to do," said Lambert. "Again, things change a little once you start getting a viewing of it, but I think there's an idea there."

Regardless of who plays where, Barzal and Horvat will need to re-establish the success they had together at the start of their time together and not what they produced during the playoffs.

Who will play alongside JG Pageau

The only forward locked into the third line currently is JG Pageau. A decision will have to be made as to who plays on the top line with Horvat and Barzal, with the two likely candidates being Anders Lee and Oliver Wahlstrom. The two play very different styles, with Lee as a net-front presence and Wahlstrom more of a sniper (though he hasn't exactly lit up the scoreboard in his career). Whoever Lambert chooses to play on the top line, the other will likely drop to Pageau's wing.

After months of speculation, we now know that Zach Parise won't be present on the first day of camp, according to Lamoriello. This doesn't mean he's retired, as there's still hope of a mid-season return from one of the Isles top performers from last season.

It will take a group effort to replace what Parise provided, but Julien Gauthier, Hudson Fasching, and Simon Hölmstrom are the most anticipated to fill Parise's spot.

Hölmstrom played 50 games with the Isles last season, popping in six goals and adding three assists. He was solid in the defensive end during his NHL time but failed to get much going on the offensive end. He'll need to show more scoring prowess during camp and pre-season if he hopes to start the season on an NHL roster. Going against Hölmstrom is that he's waivers exempt - meaning the Islanders can send him to Bridgeport without any consequence.

Fasching was brought in for depth at the AHL level. After the injury bug hit the Isles, Fasching was called into action and never looked back. He found time playing on all four lines, providing unanticipated offense while being a dog on the puck in the defensive zone.

His efforts last season earned him a two-year extension with the Islanders, as he'll be unwilling to give up a position he's fought so hard for.

The biggest name brought in by the Isles this summer was Gauthier. A former first-round pick, Gauthier played with the NY Rangers and Ottawa Senators last season before inking a two-year deal to play on Long Island.

Spending most of the last three and a half years with the Rangers, Gauthier could never catch on to an everyday role on Broadway, appearing in a career-best 49 games in 2021-22. With a career-high 14 points in 47 games last year, Gauthier hopes to catch on to a more consistent role with the Isles.

Gauthier is a load to handle at 6'3", 227 lbs, and skates like a player half his size. He'll immediately become one of the team's top skaters and can become a real asset if he can unlock his offensive potential.

Who will start the season as the sixth defenseman?

Last season, Robin Salo got the first crack on the Isles blue line but was ineffective and quickly lost his spot after just four games. In came Sebastian Aho, who seemed to surprise everyone as he took hold of the reigns as the Isles' sixth defenseman.

During the final month of the season, as the Islanders pushed toward the playoffs, they were without Alexander Romanov, who missed time with an injury. Replacing him, the Isles found confidence in Samuel Bolduc, a 6'3" 220 lbs defenseman capable of creating offense.

Aho, already 27 years old, proved he's a capable, everyday NHL defenseman. But has he already hit his peak? He's an undersized blue liner heading into the final year of his NHL deal before hitting free agency at the end of the season.

Bolduc, just 22, has much more offensive upside and size than Aho. An AHL all-star last year, Bolduc produced 35 points (10 goals, 25 assists) in 53 games with the Bridgeport Islanders of the AHL before his call-up to the big club. He has the size, skating, and offensive capabilities to become a quality top-four defenseman at some point in his NHL career.

Bolduc has two years remaining on his contract at an $800k cap hit and will remain a restricted free agent at its completion.

With only one spot available on the blue line, Lamoriello and Lambert will have to decide if they want to go with the most experienced player comfortable playing in the NHL or the younger player with more potential.