Isles Files

Your source for behind-the-scenes New York Islanders hockey news and information.

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Arthur Staple

Arthur Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, college sports, baseball, hockey and football.

Cory Conacher making a mark with Islanders

Islanders left wing Cory Conacher falls back after

Islanders left wing Cory Conacher falls back after being punched by Boston Bruins center Chris Kelly despite the efforts of linesman Derek Nansen during the third period of an NHL preseason hockey game in Boston, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. (Credit: AP / Elise Amendola)

Cory Conacher is a guy you root for.

The 24-year-old made it to the NHL in 2012-13 as an undrafted, undersized (5-9, possibly in skates) free agent who has suffered from Type 1 diabetes since age 8. He nearly made the Lightning out of training camp in 2011-12 but went to the AHL and earned MVP honors with 39 goals and 80 points for Norfolk.

He made an impact in 2012-13 with the Lightning and then the Senators after a trade but was waived by Ottawa last season and finished the year a free agent again after closing out the season with the Sabres.

He signed with the Islanders on the first day of free agency into a seemingly open field of forwards; the next day, the Isles added Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin, making things difficult for Conacher before training camp even began.

After a couple of so-so preseason performances, Conacher showed the best of what he can bring to an NHL team on Tuesday in Boston. He had a goal, helped produce another with a good screen in front of the opposing net and generally was a pain in the rear to the Bruins.

"With me being a smaller guy, you always have to go in with that chip on your shoulder," Conacher said after the Islanders' 5-3 win.

Conacher had the benefit of starting Tuesday night on the left side with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, though Jack Capuano swapped out Okposo for Cal Clutterbuck about six minutes into the second. Conacher got some net-front power-play time in addition to first-line minutes and made the most of his opportunity.

He most likely won't start the season there if he makes it onto the final roster, but he helped his cause on Tuesday.

"Johnny, Kyle, Clutter, those are easy guys to play with, you don't have to force things as much," Conacher said. "What I need to remind myself is to play that way no matter who I'm with. Just try and focus on being the best player I can be regardless of the situation."

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Takeaways from Tuesday's Isles game

Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron turns the corner

Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron turns the corner to score a goal against Islanders goalie Kevin Poulin while Islanders center John Tavares and defenseman Matt Donovan try to defend in the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game in Boston, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. (Credit: AP / Elise Amendola)

Travel deals

BOSTON - A few reactions, knee-jerk (from me, naturally) and postgame (from the Isles) following Tuesday night's preseason win against the Bruins.

The team is off Wednesday, so the last two real evaluation days for the staff are the games Thursday in Newark against the Devils and Friday in Bridgeport against the Bruins. Those games will be last call for a few players who want to be in uniform on Oct. 10.

Cory Conacher

The player who most helped his roster case Tuesday night, for me, was Cory Conacher. He got a chance to play with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo -- then, when the Isles' attack completely fizzled in the opening five minutes of the second, it was Conacher-Tavares-Cal Clutterbuck -- and made the most of his time. Conacher was a pest in front of the Boston net, got smacked around and popped back up, provided a great screen on T.J. Brennan's power-play goal and scored a beauty off the rush with a feed from Tavares.

"What I need to remind myself is to play that way no matter who I'm with," Conacher said. "Just try and focus on being the best player I can be regardless of the situation."

Unsaid in my brief chat with Conacher was that, in his first two games, he seemed to be trying too hard to make an impression instead of driving to the net, staying there and being a general pain. Taking a licking from a few of the big boys on the Bruins' defense and not backing down is a very, very good way to get positive reviews from this coaching staff.

Cal Clutterbuck

Clutterbuck, by the way, has been the Isles' best forward throughout camp, for me. His preparation and ability to do his job right from Day One is noticeable. It makes me think it could have been a very different season last year had he not suffered a deep skate cut to his thigh in the preseason opener.

Kuleimin and Skille

Also liked Nikolay Kulemin's game Tuesday night. For a big guy, he can move. Just a very solid, all-around dependable player. Jack Skille is a battler, too, and he is still in the running for the 13th forward slot. He and Colin McDonald play a similar game, so it could come down to those two as the extra forward on opening night.

John Tavares

Tavares was still pretty down on his own game after Tuesday night, despite playing a strong second period and getting feisty in the third. He seemed fine after taking a slash from Adam McQuaid to the back of his leg. "We weren't very good at all for the first half of the game," he noted.

I'm hearing he will play in one of the two remaining games, and my guess is Brock Nelson will get the last audition spot on the left with Tavares and Okposo. Nelson has been a very good center in camp, but this is the line that makes the most sense, especially given Jack Capuano's desire to have Mikhail Grabovski in the middle.

Josh Bailey

As for Josh Bailey, it seems to me that when he's trying to do too much, it appears like he's frozen. There was a hustle play opportunity in the first period when a puck caromed off a player and went into the offensive-zone corner. Ryan Strome was closer to the puck, but Bailey had a clearer angle to either play it with a speed burst or at least put a body on a Bruins defender.

He did neither, coasting instead to let Strome be the lead forechecker. I imagine bad words were muttered under the breaths of coaches on the bench and in the press box. It's a small, nothing play, but if Bailey had driven into the corner hard and hit someone, it could have said something.

What will happen with Bailey and the four years and $14 million left on his deal? I can't see any team taking him in a trade, even for a mid-round pick. Maybe if he's placed on waivers, but unlikely then, too.

I was reminded of a game from April 11, 2013, in this same building. It was a huge game in the Isles' playoff push against one of the better teams in the East. The Isles won, 2-1, and Bailey had both goals. It was his best, most clutch game of his career, and it seemed like a turning point for a guy who'd been trying to prove he should be a big part of the core going forward.

Now, less than 18 months later, he might not have a role on the team at all.

Ryan Strome

Strome played well, but was it enough? We've gone over this situation an awful lot. I was even chided on Twitter on Wednesday morning for going over it too much. But Strome's spot seemed assured when camp began.

If he goes to Bridgeport, perhaps that will be the impetus he needs. It worked last year. I could envision a scenario where he is sent down before opening night, Bailey begins the season with a roster spot and things could change soon after the start of the season.

Michael Grabner

Michael Grabner is in that gray area too, which is made grayer by an upper-body injury that's keeping him off the ice. It's highly unlikely he plays either of the next two games, which says to me he'll start the season on injured reserve so he can get his conditioning in line.

So there's another spot for Strome to grab.

On defense

Calvin de Haan (upper body, not shoulder related) and Lubomir Visnovsky (back spasms) are still out. Of those two, my feeling is Visnovsky will be ready for opening night. Neither is likely to play this week, so de Haan could start on IR as well for conditioning purposes.

That could mean something for Griffin Reinhart, who had a lousy first period and better second and third periods Tuesday. He felt he handled himself well against the Bruins' big boys -- he hacked off Milan Lucic with an inadvertent high stick in the third -- and it was a good test for him.

Whether it was enough to land him in the top six opening night is another story. My guess? If de Haan is out, Brian Strait or Brennan pair with Travis Hamonic in the short term and Ryan Pulock makes the cut. Still undecided, however.

Kevin Poulin

And lastly, how about Kevin Poulin? He gave up three goals, yes. The second goal was stoppable. But he was very sharp again. If only he had come out like this last season.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that he gets claimed on waivers if and when he's sent down. If not, it could be a very good thing for the Islanders that Poulin, still only 24, get a full season as a starter in Bridgeport. He can still be a valuable asset.

Opening night?

Since I've been asked (again and again and...) for my opening-night projections, here's what I've got right now. Please mock me to your heart's content on Twitter. You know, same as always:

Forwards

Nelson-Tavares-Okposo

Conacher-Grabovski-Kulemin

Bailey-Nielsen-McDonald

Martin-Cizikas-Clutterbuck

(extras: Skille, Boulton; IR: Grabner)

Defense

Brennan-Hamonic

Hickey-Visnovsky

Strait-Pulock

(extra: Czuczman; IR: de Haan, Carkner)

Goaltender

Halak

Johnson

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Islanders' Ryan Strome is fighting for a job

Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron turns the corner
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Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron turns the corner to score a goal against Islanders goalie Kevin Poulin while Islanders center John Tavares and defenseman Matt Donovan try to defend in the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game in Boston, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014.(Credit: AP / Elise Amendola)

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BOSTON - Jack Capuano is usually loath to single out players who need to be better. Asked about where Ryan Strome stood heading into last night's preseason game here against the Bruins, Capuano pulled no punches.

"I think Ryan knows his camp hasn't been where it needs to be," the coach said of the Isles' top prospect. "He has the kind of talent a lot of guys would love to have, but we need to see him get involved more. And he knows that."

Strome seemed a lock to start this season with the Isles after splitting his rookie year between Bridgeport, where he made the AHL All-Star Game after posting 34 points in his first 23 games, and the Islanders, where he finished the season with a solid showing in 37 games.

But this crowded training camp is forcing Capuano and his staff to take nothing for granted and assume spots for only a handful of forwards. Strome, caught a bit in limbo as his natural center position is completely overcrowded, didn't come out of the gate quickly and a host of veteran additions to the middle of the Isles' forward depth have threatened to push Strome back to the minors.

"I think I've been around long enough so I know what's at stake," Strome said. "You see how hungry some of the older guys are for jobs, and I'm no different. It's important for me to keep pushing guys and show I belong."

Strome was at center last night, starting between Nikolay Kulemin and Josh Bailey, the latter an Isles mainstay who also needs a strong week to have a spot when the season begins in Raleigh on Oct. 10.

But Strome does not appear to fit into the top line with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, who skated with 24-year-old free agent signee Cory Conacher for part of the game. With Frans Nielsen set to anchor a defense-oriented third line and Casey Cizikas working hard as the fourth-line center, Strome's only real shot is on the second line, which likely will have Mikhail Grabovski and Kulemin on it.

Time is not on Strome's side. He may get one more game of the two remaining preseason contests, Thursday in Newark against the Devils and Friday in Bridgeport against the Bruins, but final evaluations will come soon after.

Should Strome end up in Bridgeport to start the season, there's every reason to think he'll be back up in short order, with injuries and the usual vagaries of the regular season.

"We obviously want him to be a big part of our club," Capuano said. "He's a very intelligent player and person. He knows what he has to do."

Notes & quotes:The Isles let a two-goal lead slip, but rallied for a 5-3 win. T.J. Brennan, Conacher, Okposo, Cal Clutterbuck and Scott Mayfield scored the goals.

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Isles roster battles take shape in Boston

New York Islanders No. 18 Ryan Strome shoots

New York Islanders No. 18 Ryan Strome shoots on goal during the Group A session of team training camp held at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday, September 20, 2014. (Credit: James Escher)

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BOSTON - With Tuesday night's roster set for Isles-Bruins here, a few thoughts on where we stand with the final 23:

Josh Bailey and Ryan Strome (along with Michael Grabner, who missed practice the last two days) found themselves in the second group Monday after the Isles reduced their NHL camp to 43 players. Pretty much the entire first group was composed of 12 forwards under consideration for roster spots, so it seems logical to assume being in group two felt like a slight.

"If they want to look at it that way, they can," Jack Capuano said. "I think certain guys need to know they have to do a little bit more. We have these three games here and some of them, it's important to take a close look at a few positions."

Bailey and Strome are playing Tuesday night on a second line with Nikolay Kulemin, so here's a chance to do a little bit more. Strome has the option of going to Bridgeport, even though that would be a decidedly unpopular demotion. Bailey, entering year two of a five-year, $17.5-million deal, would seem to be a lock for something on the big club since it's almost impossible to think Garth Snow would find a trade partner for that contract or that Bailey would be sent down.

Bailey is in a battle with four others for two top-nine wing spots. Cory Conacher, who gets a turn playing with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo on Tuesday night, and Jack Skille are also in the mix with Anders Lee and Grabner. It's hard to know where everyone sits right now, so that five-guys, two-spots battle likely will be determined by this week's games. There's also room for a 13th forward among those five, plus Colin McDonald, who did what he had to do in Brooklyn on Friday and will be hard to let go.

Strome is in a much tougher spot. Capuano told Newsday on Monday that he sees Mikhail Grabovski, who played the last two games on the left side, as a center. Capuano is reluctant to move Brock Nelson out of the center position, but it seems he might have to if Grabovski is only a center.

Tavares, Frans Nielsen (who centered Lee and Skille on Tuesday night) and Casey Cizikas appear to have the other three center positions locked up. So Strome has to beat out Grabovski and Nelson to become an opening-night player. That seems unlikely.

On defense, Lubomir Visnovsky's back spasms on Monday certainly threw a wrench into Capuano's evaluations. Matt Donovan took Visnovsky's spot Tuesday night, but how to plan on defense? Griffin Reinhart gets another chance to show he can make the roster, paired with T.J. Brennan.

If Visnovsky isn't ready by the end of the week, things could be in flux.

One thing that would help this logjam everywhere? A trade. There are no signs that Snow is closing in on a deal, but rosters will be set by next Tuesday, so some cap-pushing clubs might feel more pressure to unload.

Of course, those teams can't add big salaries, so unless it's some sort of "we'll take this off your hands if you take that off our hands" swap, Bailey wouldn't be part of a deal with, say, the Bruins or Hawks unless it was a big deal.

So here we sit, with lots of confusion and congestion. Who knew the Isles preseason games meant so much?

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Islanders still auditioning for wing man for John Tavares

Islanders center John Tavares (91) skates in the

Islanders center John Tavares (91) skates in the first period of a preseason game against the Carolina Hurricanes at Nassau Veteran Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 24, 2014. (Credit: Andrew Theodorakis)

Travel deals

John Tavares received about as lasting an honor as a 24-year-old could have Sunday, with his No. 91 raised to the rafters in Oshawa, Ontario, by his Ontario League junior team.

On Monday, it was back to the grind.

Tavares still is trying to shake off the rust from not playing a game since February as Isles training camp heads into its second and final week, with three preseason games in four nights beginning Tuesday in Boston.

Jack Capuano has plenty of decisions to make with a crowded camp; Tavares is not a big concern, but who plays on the left side with Tavares and Kyle Okposo certainly is. Cory Conacher, the 24-year-old free-agent signee, likely will get a chance Tuesday, the fourth wing to work with Tavares and Okposo this preseason.

"Everyone I've played with brings a lot of offense and can make plays, and that's great. But everyone plays their own style of game, so it takes some adjustment," Tavares said. "The more you're familiar with that, it helps with the chemistry, the more you play together, practice together. So that can help. But the coaching staff is trying to mix things up and I want to be able to play with anyone, just play the way I know I can play no matter who's with me."

Capuano hinted that Brock Nelson, who has been solid at center, could be next in line to try and play with Tavares and Okposo. Nelson centered Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin on Friday in Brooklyn, but Capuano says he sees Grabovski as a center.

"I'm not worried about Brock if I have to move him to wing," Capuano said. "There's a logjam there [at center]."

Tavares was taken aback by the emotions of Sunday's ceremony in Oshawa, where his jersey joined some elite company in the rafters: Bobby Orr, Eric Lindros and pre-World War II star Red Tilson are the others whose numbers were retired.

"It was pretty overwhelming. Emotional, a lot more emotional than I thought it would be," Tavares said. "It's pretty special, especially with the guys that are already up there, it's one of the most historic organizations in hockey up there. So it meant a lot to me; there's a big connection there. It was pretty humbling, an amazing honor, a great night."

Notes & quotes: Lubomir Visnovsky left Monday's practice with back spasms and is day-to-day, though unlikely to play any of the remaining preseason games. That might throw a wrench into Capuano's evaluations on defense, where several players are vying for the final two to three spots . . . Michael Dal Colle, the fifth pick in the June draft, agreed to terms on a three-year contract.

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Ryan Pulock gives himself good shot with Islanders by shooting puck

Islanders prospect Ryan Pulock skates during minicamp at

Islanders prospect Ryan Pulock skates during minicamp at Nassau Coliseum. (July 9, 2013) (Credit: James Escher)

With half of training camp gone, the roster decisions are supposed to be getting clearer for Jack Capuano and the Islanders' coaching staff. But there may be a spot on defense that is even more up for grabs now than it was when camp began last Friday.

Griffin Reinhart was thought to be the rookie with the best chance to earn a spot on defense, but the 2012 first-round pick may have been overtaken so far by the team's 2013 first-rounder, Ryan Pulock.

The hard-shooting, solidly built Pulock, who doesn't turn 20 until Oct. 6 (but is still eligible to play in the AHL this season with that birth date), has been steadily improving over the past week.

That culminated in a pretty sharp night at Barclays Center on Friday, where Pulock blasted home the Isles' first goal in their future home arena and showed the sort of poise and offensive ability Capuano wants from a defense that produced only 23 goals last season.

"What I liked tonight is that he got involved in the offense," Capuano said. "There are a lot of guys that, when they get the puck on their stick, they want to make the safe play and a lot of times that's the right thing to do, but tonight he shot a lot of pucks and that's what we are looking for on our power play."

T.J. Brennan, Brian Strait and Matt Donovan are also in the mix for third-pair slots, along with rookie Kevin Czuczman. Reinhart, Pulock and Czuczman do not need waivers to be sent to Bridgeport and the earlier-mentioned trio do need waivers, so the rookies need to make big impressions to stick.

Reinhart has certainly been steady in camp, but perhaps not yet playing at full NHL speed. Pulock, at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds built more like a five-year NHL vet than a teenager, has not looked out of place with the speed of the preseason pro game.

"I always knew I needed to get bigger and stronger to be able to play at this level," said Pulock, who had 23 goals and 40 assists for Brandon of the Western League last year. "You train in the summer with an eye on wanting to be here and earn a spot, and so far I think it's going pretty well."

Notes & quotes: Defensemen Calvin de Haan and Matt Carkner sat out practice with upper-body injuries and both are day-to-day. Forward Harry Zolnierczyk also sat out practice and is day-to-day as well . . . John Tavares traveled to Oshawa, Ontario, to have his number retired by his junior club Sunday night. The Islanders have Sunday off.

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Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin look to turn a new leaf with Islanders

Fans are seen outside Barclays Center for a
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Fans are seen outside Barclays Center for a preseason hockey game between the Islanders and the New Jersey Devils on Friday, Sept. 26, 2014.(Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

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Part of the reason Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin signed together with the Islanders was their familiarity and past success as linemates with the Leafs.

It remains to be seen whether the two Eastern Europeans -- Grabovski was born in the former East Germany and was raised in Belarus; Kulemin in Russia -- can duplicate their 2010-11 seasons, when Grabovski had 29 goals and 58 points and Kulemin produced 30 goals on Grabovski's wing.

The most important part right now of their package deal with the Isles is easing into a new team and a new system together.

"It's always tough to come to a new team for me," Grabovski said. "I'm kind of a shy guy, so it's not easy. It's easier with Nikolay here, too. My closest friend in NHL -- our wives are friends, our kids. I feel more comfortable with him around."

Jack Capuano seemingly has been inclined to keep the two friends together on a proposed second line, though Friday night at Barclays Center there was a twist: Grabovski and Kulemin were on the wings with Brock Nelson in the middle.

The trio had some effective moments. Grabovski got a try as the top-line left wing on Wednesday at the Coliseum, though he didn't mesh quite as well with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Grabovski has been a center just about his entire seven-year NHL career, save for the final quarter of last season with the Capitals.

Flexibility seems to be the most important quality Capuano is seeking in his forwards. Nelson has been effective in the middle, so Grabovski could be the one to move.

After his last two seasons, he's not fazed by much. He signed a five-year, $27-million extension with the Leafs before the 2012-13 season, but his role changed and he had only 16 points in the shortened season. He then was bought out only a year into the new pact.

He had 35 points in 58 games with the Caps on a one-year deal, then he and Kulemin's agent, Gary Greenstin, began looking for a team that could take both forwards on. "I was in the same team for six years, only make the playoffs once. It's hard to play for a team that doesn't make the playoffs every year," Kulemin said of his five years in Toronto. "I think it's time to start with a new team, be better moving forward."

Notes & quotes: After being shut out in their Barclays Center debut last September, the Isles got on the board this time around and grabbed a 3-2 shootout decision over the Devils. Ryan Pulock, the 2013 first-round pick, scored on the power play and Colin McDonald scored as well for the Isles, who drew 11,823 to Barclays Center for the game.

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Islanders roster in flux heading into game at Barclays Center

Islanders center Ryan Strome looks on during Group

Islanders center Ryan Strome looks on during Group A training camp at Nassau Coliseum on Friday, September 19, 2014. (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

A few words about rosters and evaluations, all of which are still in flux heading into Friday night's Barclays Center game for the Islanders against the Devils:

-- Sometimes it's less about who's in than who's out. There are certainly players not in Friday's Isles lineup who have roster spots assured -- Frans Nielsen is the biggest one. His role as the No. 2/3 center, depending on how you view these things, is completely set in stone. So Nielsen sitting out tonight is not a knock on him.

I'd say the same goes for Cal Clutterbuck, who has some sort of right-wing spot pretty well locked down. Clutterbuck told Newsday recently that his approach to a camp that's filled with roster battles is no different than last year's, when the NHL roster was just about set from the start of camp.

"You have to be able to adapt, I think," Clutterbuck said. "You want to be a guy who can fill whatever role you're given. I think that helps your approach to any camp because you have to gain trust before you can really do anything."

Clutterbuck was effective on the fourth line Wednesday, though he could end up being a third-line guy with Nielsen and some as-yet-undetermined left wing as well. If you're not John Tavares (or Nielsen), you better have more to offer than just one dimension.

-- Tavares and Kyle Okposo have not exactly been sharp in their two previous games, with Josh Bailey and Mikhail Grabovski on their left side. Jack Capuano is trying Anders Lee there Friday. Tavares said he had no objection to playing 3-4 preseason games and, knowing how tough he is on his own play, I would think he'd like as much time as possible in game situations to start sharpening things up. Same for Okposo.

-- The interesting second line tonight has Grabovski again on the wing, a place he said he's only played in the KHL during the 2012-13 lockout and at the end of last season with the Capitals, with Brock Nelson in the middle and Nikolay Kulemin on the right.

Nelson, as he did last year, is continuing to impress as a center, making it harder for the coaching staff to put him on the wing. Another strong performance Friday and it could be Grabovski that ends up shifting out of the crowded center spot to use his great speed along the side wall.

-- Of the guys who are sitting out Friday that could be feeling the roster squeeze -- and this is speculation, given that the coaches have been extremely tight-lipped with their individual assessments so far -- Cory Conacher may be a man without a spot. He was good with Grabovski and Kulemin in St. John's on Monday, but seemingly tried too hard to make things happen on Wednesday playing with Nielsen and Jack Skille.

Conacher is a hard worker, but can he wedge out guys like Michael Grabner, Bailey, Matt Martin, Clutterbuck or Colin McDonald on the lower-six wing depth chart? It seems unlikely right now.

Ryan Strome, surprisingly, may be another guy without a spot right now. He is extremely talented, but he struggled moving to the wing with Lee and Nelson on Wednesday. As one of the only two real roster considerations who does not need waivers to be sent down, Strome needs to outshine his competition. He hasn't done that yet, though there's another week for him to get there.

That may cause some eyes to roll in Isles land, but this camp is not about finding ways to keep people happy. It's about, as Capuano says, finding the best 23 guys to be there Opening Night. The Isles can say that now and genuinely mean it, unlike in thinner years gone by. That means even a world-class player like Strome has to come out of the gate blazing, because there's older, savvier guys who will take his place.

If Strome does get sent down, he'll be unhappy. Not Nino Niederreiter unhappy, so let's not go there, but it would be the most stark sign yet that the Isles are not handing out roster spots based on draft position or prospect rankings. They want results.

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Battling to keep job with Islanders, Casey Cizikas is impressing

Casey Cizikas, right, celebrates after Matt Martin scored

Casey Cizikas, right, celebrates after Matt Martin scored the team's fifth goal as Vancouver Canucks goalie Eddie Lack kneels on the ice during third period action in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Monday March 10, 2014. (Credit: AP / Darryl Dyck)

Casey Cizikas had one goal coming into Islanders training camp: Set no goals.

"If I just leave it all out there every time I get a chance, that's all I was looking for," said Cizikas, who did just that on Wednesday in the Isles' lone preseason game at Nassau Coliseum. Cizikas and linemates Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck were the best Islanders throughout the game, with Cizikas scoring a shorthanded goal in a 4-2 loss to the Hurricanes.

The 23-year-old Cizikas seemed to cement a role as the fourth-line center, penalty killer and overall pesky player in the lockout-shortened 2012-13, his rookie season. He had 15 points in 45 games and then two goals and two assists in an effective playoffs.

But Cizikas' 2013-14, like many of his teammates, was a step back. Cizikas wasn't as good or timely on offense and was a consistent part of the 29th-ranked penalty kill. So even without the huge influx of NHL-experienced forwards for this camp, Cizikas would have needed a strong showing to earn a spot.

"You have to be ready to battle every shift, no matter who's here," he said. "There's guys every year who come in ready to take your job, so there's no letting up."

Cizikas' energy and determination have been noticed in this jam-packed setting, especially in contrast to some of the other Islanders forwards not quite looking as sharp.

"Those guys [Cizikas, Clutterbuck and Martin] were our best forwards the other night," coach Jack Capuano said. "They play Islander hockey; they play the way we want to play. Obviously, some other guys are getting away from that and we need to show the video and show on the ice what we need from everyone."

Another group of forwards will get its chance on Friday in Brooklyn, when the Islanders host the Devils at Barclays Center. This game will mark a halfway point of sorts in this camp; the Isles are likely to make their first round of cuts this weekend to reduce the NHL camp to a smaller number than the current 59.

"We told the guys today we're still in the evaluation process," Capuano said. "Some guys have had good practices, good games, and some have had tough practices, tough games. We still don't really know what it's going to look like."

Notes & quotes: Capuano praised 20-year-old Ville Pokka, the Finnish defenseman who played his first game with the Islanders on Wednesday. "For a kid in his first game, he was real poised," Capuano said. "I thought he handled himself real well." Pokka is likely to return to his Finnish League club if, as expected, he doesn't crack the opening night roster.

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Islanders finding chemistry on forward lines

Islanders center John Tavares (91) is dejected at
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Islanders center John Tavares (91) is dejected at the end of the first period of a preseason game against the Carolina Hurricanes at Nassau Veteran Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 24, 2014.(Credit: Andrew Theodorakis)

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As the Islanders search through their glut of forwards to find four solid trios, at least a few good pairings have emerged. There's John Tavares and Kyle Okposo on the top line for certain, the newcomers Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin on a possible second line and Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner, old running mates, perhaps ticketed for a third line.

But another pairing hit the ice at the Coliseum on Wednesday that could throw a good wrinkle into any already laid plans. Brock Nelson and Anders Lee are good friends and roommates at this camp and they could potentially be two-thirds of a second line that would be an unexpected situation from when camp began last week.

"It's great to start that chemistry early in the year so you can set the tone a little bit," said Lee, who skated with Nelson and Ryan Strome against the Hurricanes on Wednesday night. "You do the right things and I think it'll come together for us."

Lee and Nelson skated in Monday's preseason opener in St. John's, Newfoundland, with prospect Sebastian Collberg on their right. Nelson had a goal and assist and was the Isles' best player, according to a few of the staff observers on hand. For a player thought to be ticketed for the wing thanks to a deep, experienced group of centers, Nelson could play his way into bumping someone like Grabovski to the wing at the start of the season -- Grabovski skated Wednesday night with Tavares and Okposo.

"Like I said before camp began, I just want to go out and have the strongest camp possible and the rest is out of my control," Nelson said. "You can't read too much into anything."

Lee and Nelson didn't play together much over Lee's 22-game stint at the end of last season, but they have formed a nice bond through the years of competing in college to Islanders prospect camps to now.

"You've got a guy who's always in the right place, it's so easy to play with Brock," Lee said. "He's always got your back in all three zones. Johnny and Frans, we're so tough down the middle and I'd put Brock right up there with those guys."

Notes & quotes: The Islanders lost, 4-2, to Carolina. Jaroslav Halak (19 saves) played the full 60 minutes, allowing three power-play goals. Casey Cizikas' shorthanded goal early in the third cut the Isles' deficit to 3-1. Strome scored with 1:27 left. The Isles face the Devils tomorrow night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

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