The New York Islanders' depth on the blue line has gone from one of the team's biggest problems to a surprising strength in recent weeks, setting up some tricky decisions for GM Lou Lamoriello and the organization in the weeks to come once the three regular defensemen start to get healthy and return to the lineup.
When the team lost Scott Mayfield early in the season, the team looked to 23-year-old defenseman Samuel Bolduc to fill the void as the team's seventh defenseman. Although Lane Lambert was careful with his minutes, others were able to step up and hold things down enough until Mayfield returned. Noah Dobson has been playing over 25 minutes every night and Alexander Romanov has played to a top-four level skating alongside Dobson in recent weeks.
However, when the team lost Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock to more long-term injuries, it forced Lamoriello to bring in external reinforcements, first claiming Mike Reilly off waivers from the Florida Panthers and then trading a 2024 seventh-round pick to the St. Louis Blues for Robert Bortuzzo. The team now has nine NHL-caliber defensemen on the roster, with seven being the number normally carried throughout the season.
So that begs the question, who will be the odd-men out?
First, let's discuss timelines because it doesn't appear that either Pulock or Pelech (LTIR) will be ready for at least another month, with a target of after the All-Star break in early February within reach. Mayfield is likely the first one of the three injured defensemen to return.
Bortuzzo is a gritty, physical NHL veteran who was searching for an opportunity when the Blues traded him to Long Island after parts of 10 seasons win St. Louis. He's a strong character guy, and you like how willing he is to block shots and stick up for teammates, but it's hard to see how Mayfield wouldn't occupy his role once back healthy. He could remain the team's seventh defenseman for a period of time, depending on corresponding moves.
The harder decisions come when either Pulock or Pelech return. Reilly has scored two goals and five assists in 13 games, and his speed and ability to jump into the play have brought a dimension the Islanders have been missing. Reilly's game most emulates that of fellow left-handed defenseman Sebastian Aho, who returned to the lineup on Dec. 13 and scored his first goal of the season Saturday night in Carolina. You can see a scenario where Reilly gets minutes over Aho if and when Pulock and Pelech return to the lineup.
That leaves Bolduc, who, at just 23, is not someone the organization would want to lose, and while he's the ideal candidate to log heavier minutes in Bridgeport, there's no guarantee that he would be able to slip by waivers. It would be a risky move for the Islanders to expose him, although, with long-term contracts handed out across the blue line, there's not an obvious need for him to play top-four minutes in the near future. Could he be part of a trade package? Perhaps. He's the only one of the aforementioned defensemen that could have any value because of his age.
These are better problems to have than the alternative of not having enough depth. It will be fascinating to see how the organization navigates these moves when the team gets healthier.