1. How ready are Cal Clutterbuck and Andrew Ladd?
According to reports both Clutterbuck and Ladd are skating and should be ready to go at some point early in the season. Their health, and ability to contribute will answer a multitude of underlying questions. The Islanders’ roster of forwards are a series of question marks as a whole, but these two will go a long way to answer most of them. They will determine a big portion of the roster, the salary cap management, and the style of play for the third and fourth lines.
Andrew Ladd could be a big part of a third line centered by Derek Brassard. He could also replace Matt Martin in some versions of a bottom six rotation. Other options for Ladd would include some role in the top 6, on the second PP unit or on Long Term Injured Reserve. It appears that even after camp Ladd’s future will be evaluated on a daily basis.
Cal Clutterbuck has been a tireless contributor to The Best Fourth Line In Hockey. He does all the things you want a bottom six forward to do. He kills penalties, he isn’t afraid to play in front of the opponents well guarded net, he gets pucks deep, he finishes his checks, and he shoots the puck at every opportunity.
Cal’s style of play definitely takes its toll, and he is definitely due for a regression in production. I don’t see him playing more than 50 games this year, but we hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
I think both will be managed into limited use this year and will be factors in the usage of Michael Dal Colle, Thomas Kuhnhackl and Tanner Fritz. I fully expect both to be either on the injured reserve or in rehab assignments early so the Islanders can get an extended look at multiple prospects.
2. Who gets waived and when?
The Islanders currently have 26+ non waiver exempt players on the roster, and the NHL only allows 23 on the active roster. Even if Ladd and Clutterbuck start the season off the active roster that would leave more than four non waiver exempt, and a few waiver exempt players competing for possibly 3 spots.
This is the way I see the current roster
The most likely to be on the waiver wire is Ross Johnston, with the competition broadening to Dal Colle, Fritz, Ho-Sang and Kuhnhackl as Ladd and/or Clutterbuck returns. There are also the outside chances of Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom winning spots and widening the field even more. They are both waiver exempt, but Dobson would have to go back to the QMJHL.
3. What will the third line look like?
Last year the most common version of the third line (or maybe more accurately the 3A line) was Val Filppula between Beauvillier and Komarov. Between free agency, promotions, injuries and demotions there is a good possibility that none of those players will be on the third line to start the season.
Ladd is probably the best LW after Lee and Beauvillier when healthy. But I don’t expect that to be often, at least not at 100%. So there will be some competition between Dal Colle and Kuhnhackl early on. Kuhnhackl won that battle for a second line role in the playoffs, mostly because of experience and the ability to kill penalties. I expect Dal Colle to continue his evolution into a solid middle six forward. This will be something to watch.
Derick Brassard was signed expressly to address this center position. Over the course of the season he may find some pressure from the AHL in Otto Koivula and Mason Jobst, but he will most likely start the season as C3.
The biggest of the question marks will be at RW. I feel there are five candidates for this spot. Early on, the two Josh’s may battle for the RW spot with Lee and Nelson with the loser working on Brassard’s right side. Bailey isn’t going anywhere, but if Ho-Sang can’t win the second line spot he falls into a deeper competition for the two bottom six RW roles. He does not kill penalties, so he has to win the third line spot to stay on the 23. He is not waiver exempt, so this could mean the end of his Islander career.
Clutterbuck will be competing for this role as well, if and when he’s healthy. Tanner Fritz who can kill penalties and take RH draws is also a candidate. I feel that Komarov will eventually be part of a more defensive fourth line, but he, as well will be vying for the spot.
To start the season I see Bailey playing with Nelson, Ho-Sang with Brassard, Komarov with Cizikas and Clutterbuck’s time managed on IR or in Bridgeport on rehab.
4. How will they manage Noah Dobson?
By all accounts Noah Dobson is ready for the NHL. The bigger question is, are the Islanders ready for Noah Dobson?
Noah finished up a tremendous junior season with his second straight Memorial Cup victory. In the playoffs he seemed to be on the ice more than the goalies, second only to the paint. There is only one thing holding him back from starting his NHL career. Competition.
Nothing Left to Learn in Junior
Dobson has had a great Canadian junior hockey career. He’s one of the better 19 year old defensive prospects in North America. His competition is not only the three right handed defensemen who patrolled the blue line for the Islanders last year, but the NHL CBA.
Noah would probably be a better fourth right handed option than Grant Hutton, and maybe even a better eighth defenseman than Sebastian Aho, who already has some NHL experience. The problem is he is also battling the terms of his Entry Level Contract. At 19, the Islanders can slide the start of his three year ELC to his 20YO season if he plays less than 10 games in the NHL.
Part-time Player/Full-time Price
For Noah to win a full time NHL job one of the top three right side defenders would have to go down with an injury, or they would need to move one of their seven current NHL defensemen in a deal.
It would be a huge risk to waste an ELC year for a part time player, especially when there are capable NHL veterans who can do the job with little or no risk at all. I see Dobson staying with the team for 5-8 weeks, and playing 5-9 games, and then being sent back to the Q to prepare for the World Junior Championships and the QMJHL playoffs. This is what they did with Mat Barzal in 2016-17. They will have to manage the roster through injuries just to do that.
5. How will they fix the power play?
The short answer is Jim Hiller. Hiller was hired in expectation of Lane Lambert leaving for an NHL head coaching job. That didn’t happen, but Hiller will be the Islanders assistant coach in charge of the power play. He held that role on Mike Babcock’s staff in Toronto, and I believe they go back to Detroit together as well. Needless to say, he was quite successful last year with a more talented group. This year will be a bit more of a challenge.
The Islanders have also parted ways with assistant coach Scott Gomez. They made some personnel changes in the second half of last year that will probably carry over into this year’s power play.
What Hiller will bring to the structure, and personnel will be something fun to watch for during camp. I hope they will deploy Ryan Pulock more on the top unit, and move Mat Barzal around more when he isn’t in possession of the puck.