As the National Hockey League inches closer to restarting the 2019-20 season with a play-in tournament to determine the Stanley Cup champion, the New York Islanders pushed forward in their preparations for a meeting with the pesky Florida Panthers.
Two weeks since first hitting the ice, the team is preparing to leave for their ‘bubble city’ in Toronto, where they will meet the New York Rangers Wednesday in an exhibition game that will give them, at least, a fleeting semblance of game action before the series with Florida kicks off next Saturday.
The series, a best-of-five, will be your classic ‘push and pull’, if you will, as the Panthers (35-26-8) have a quick strike offense that can score with the best of them (seventh in the league in goals for), but have trouble defending (28th in goals against), and Sergei Bobrovsky, perhaps experiencing the weight on a ginormous contract, did not perform well (3.23, .900).
The Islanders (35-23-10), meanwhile, can’t light the lamp regularly (23rd), yet have a stout defensive system and structure under head coach Barry Trotz (eighth in goals against). Both of their goaltenders, Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss, produced average goals against and save percentage numbers this season, however.
The winner gets to advance to the round-of-16 to battle for the illustrious trophy. The loser has a one-in-eight chance of being selected to draft phenom Alexis Lafrenière with the first selection in the entry draft. Those are the stakes and I feel this will be a lot closer a series than was the Islanders-Penguins romp of last season, in which New York swept Sidney Crosby and mates out of the tournament in the opening round.
What will determine the Islanders' fate, as Trotz has laid down his foundation with the organization, will be the defense – a defense that is healthy, mobile, and ready to get back to their form of a year ago, when they led the league in goals against, allowing Robin Lehner and Greiss to share the William Jennings trophy. But, who will feature in that defense, exactly? Trotz has tons of choice. Experience? Youth? Let’s break it down.
Nick Leddy: Automatic. There’s no reason to believe, speculate, or ponder about this one. Leddy is the Islanders' most agile puck-moving defenseman, even if he has been, to the naked eye, off his game the past two seasons.
Johnny Boychuk: Fully recovered from a scary eye injury that came millimeters from slicing his actual eyeball, Boychuk is the grizzled veteran that every team needs this time of year. Not to mention, he brings a ring with him to the tournament, winning with the Boston Bruins.
Adam Pelech: Around the league, players who, under normal circumstances, would have missed the playoffs, will make a difference for their teams now that they are recovered. Pelech is huge, as everyone noticed the drop in defensive play when he went down with the Achilles injury.
Ryan Pulock: The Islanders’ most capable power play threat, who has grown and matured into a fine top-four, maybe even top-two. Better defensively than some give him credit for at this moment, he will surely command top minutes.
Devon Toews: It might have taken longer than many Islanders fans wanted, but the anticipation was realized and the wait well worth it. In his first full season, Toews produced 28 points in 68 games and a 50 percent 5v5 Corsi, on a team that doesn’t possess the puck all that much.
Scott Mayfield: You would have to believe Mayfield can be considered a ‘mainstay’ at this point. Steady defensive play and the only Islander with real size that plays a physical game consistently.
Andy Greene: Greene likely suffers the most with the return of Pelech, as you can easily picture him being shifted to the seventh spot. Acquired to specifically cover for the loss of Pelech, Greene is a pro’s pro, captaining the Devils for years before coming over. If any of the ‘top-six’ go down or need a breather, he can step in easily and will be prepared for the challenge.
Noah Dobson: We expected jitters for Dobson as he acquainted himself to the pro game. But, you can already see flashes of what will make him a mainstay for years to come on the Islanders’ blue line. He’s a steady, puck mover who can contribute offensively, but it’s just not time yet. Not for this type of marathon after months of not playing competitive hockey.
Sebastian Aho/Thomas Hickey: Rosters expand to 28 for the tournament (up from 23), so if Trotz decides he wants to take four defensemen (and one forward) as a cover, these two will come along for the ride, but it’s hard to envision either having any impact on the results, granting everyone stays healthy.
This defense will determine the Islanders' fate. Let’s hope we see more of the 2018-19 version than the 2019-20 version when 4 p.m. next Saturday finally arrives.