Graziano: 5 Islanders to Watch as NHL Ramps Back Up


With Major League Baseball finally announcing a deal to resume play with set dates, the National Hockey League won’t have the spotlight all to themselves anymore. As the league continues to prepare for Phase 3 of its Return to Play protocol and the imminent announcement of its two hub cities, the New York Islanders will soon take to the ice in a much larger group to prepare for the Florida Panthers.

Islanders defensema Scott Mayfield spoke with the media via Zoom on Monday and announced himself ready to go.

"I’m coming back to win a Stanley Cup, and we have just as good a chance as anyone," he said.

He also said he has spoken to all the coaches during the lockdown along with general manager Lou Lamoriello, calling the communication between players and staff, ‘excellent’. 

Mayfield did mention that some players were beginning to have some reservations with the recent news of an outbreak among the Tampa Bay Lightning and an increase in cases in certain states, but all are anxious to get back on the ice in competitive action, saying that protocols "are kind of the new normal, right? Like going to the grocery store or Home Depot. We have to make sure we are following the rules." Don’t we all, Scott...Don’t we all.

Let’s take a look at five Islanders to watch, and why, heading into ‘training camp 2.0’ and the qualifying series against Florida.

Johnny Boychuk

The Islanders' defenseman was having a renaissance season, playing with renewed energy and vigor, helping groom the younger crop of Islanders blueliners. His presence, candid humor and likeability is well-known in the dressing room and everyone was rightfully concerned when he suffered a horrendous looking skate gash on his eyelid in a game versus the Montreal Canadiens. Now rested, and back to 100% due to the pause, Boychuk will expect to continue building on his terrific season and help lead the Islanders past the Panthers.

Adam Pelech

There is a link between the pre-game Achilles injury suffered by Pelech and a miserable decline in the Islanders defensive numbers. Having the best season of his young career, establishing himself as a bona-fide top-four, Pelech’s injury had a ripple effect on the entire team structure New York couldn’t recover from, both at even strength and on the penalty kill. The Islanders are one of the teams that benefit from one of my initial concerns: that the tournament will be littered by players who, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t have been playing. We good with that? I’m good. 

Casey Cizikas

Cizikas played 48 games before suffering a gash to his thigh from an errant skate, one of an unbelievable three members to suffer a similar fate (Boychuk, Cal Clutterbuck). The cut took longer than anticipated to heal and before the lockdown, there was no clear indication when the sparkplug center might return. He’s 100% now and vital to New York’s fourth unit with Clutterbuck and Matt Martin. It's a unit that appeared to have regained their mojo this year and will be relied upon to stir things up and shift momentum. It doesn’t hurt that Cizikas is one of the team’s top penalty killers and chipped in with 10 goals prior to the injury.

Semyon Varlamov

Signed as a bridge, and an olive branch, to Ilya Sorokin, Varlamov was less than stellar in his first season under an inflated contract. The Islanders were the top defensive team in the league last year, led by Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, but have slumped this campaign to eighth. Still top 10, I get it, but comparatively, and by all accounts, the structure isn’t the same. Varlamov was 19-14-6, posting a pedestrian 2.62 GAA and league average .914 save percentage. In addition, only about 50% of his starts were considered "quality starts" (like the baseball statistic of the same name). Varlamov will need to be much better than average to beat the Panthers. Remember, it’s going to take five rounds to win the Stanley Cup this summer rather than four for 20 teams, the Islanders being one.

Jordan Eberle

Everyone remembers the legend of Jordan Eberle in the postseason, when he torched the Pittsburgh Penguins in a first round sweep and ended with 4-5-9 in eight games. The 30-year old was having a successful pre-virus campaign that put him back on his career averages after suffering through a miserable 2018-19, both personally and professionally. Eberle was on pace for 23 goals and the Islanders would love for him to repeat his playoff magic to give their struggling offense a push past the Panthers and into the round of 16