Lou Lamoriello hates the word "potential" when it comes to assessing younger players.
It came up when the Islanders president and general manager was asked, during a recent private interview with Newsday and one other traveling media outlet, to assess the play of his younger players, such as Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows, defensemen Noah Dobson, Sebastian Aho and Robin Aho and goalie Ilya Sorokin (and if Sorokin isn’t the team’s MVP, then it’s Dobson).
The simple answer is the organization is satisfied with the progress they’ve seen this season. But the explanation why was telling.
"I always look at young players as doing things right," Lamoriello said. "I don’t worry about what success they have. We know what their abilities are. What potential simply means is that they have the ability to do certain things and then you have to actuate it. I have a phrase, ‘Playing with potential is the easiest way to get beat.’ You have to actuate it."
Dobson set career highs with 10 goals and 17 assists in his first 49 games following what amounted to a two-year NHL apprenticeship after being the 12th overall pick in 2018. Lamoriello used him as an example of the right way to develop prospects.
"What he went through last year, in and out of the lineup, not playing games, it was an immense experience for him," Lamoriello said. "As tough as it was, you can see the foundation he created there. Being put in situations to succeed, having rest. Now, he’s growing.
"Oliver and Kieffer, at this given time, are going through similar things for different reasons, as Noah Dobson did. Or like a Salo did. No different than Sorokin did last year. I believe in patience with young players so, when they get to the league, they stay in the league. We have confidence in these individuals that they will be players, certainly today and tomorrow. But, along the way, there’s going to be stumbling blocks. You accept that from them. But you do not accept that from veterans."
And, in that, Lamoriello acknowledged a bit of a Catch-22 through this disappointing season. Even as he said he does not accept "stumbling blocks" from veterans, Lamoriello said the veterans have been relied upon in the Islanders’ uphill struggle to mount a playoff push.
"Unfortunately, what’s transpired is when you’re not winning on a consistent basis, you have to go with the people who have more experience and give you that better chance at that time."
Next man up?
If impending unrestricted free agent Cal Clutterbuck is moved, as expected, before the NHL trade deadline on March 21, it will finally break up the Islanders’ long-running, identity-setting trio with center Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin. Dubbed "the best fourth line in hockey," after being formed in 2014, it has been together since save for Martin’s two seasons with the Maple Leafs from 2016-18.
But moving Clutterbuck may finally give Ross Johnston his long-awaited chance to become a full-time NHL player.
The 6-5, 232-pound Johnston, who turned 28 last month and made his debut for the Islanders on April 10, 2016, finally played his 100th NHL game in a 4-0 win in Anaheim on Feb. 27, notching his first career two-assist game.
A 5-3 loss in Colorado two days later went less well as a penalty to Johnston and then a defensive lapse led to two Avalanche goals. Martin was back in the lineup for Thursday night’s 4-3 loss to the Canucks at UBS Arena.
"All the time that he’s spent with the assistant coaches, the skill coaches over the years has really helped his game," coach Barry Trotz said. "He can play on the fourth line but you see I move him up because of his ability to skate."
Johnston, so far known mostly for his fighting skills, has waited his turn this season as Kieffer Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom have gotten more regular playing time, Zach Parise was signed as a free agent and Leo Komarov and Austin Czarnik also played some games before both left the organization.
"He needs more games," Trotz said. "He’s a little bit older player so he’s a late-developing player. As we go forward, this year and next year, his role should continue to increase and his regular status in the lineup will probably solidify a little more as long as he’s playing well."
Johnston’s four-year, $4.4 million extension kicks in next season.
Not used to losing
The Islanders are in danger of finishing under NHL .500 for the first time in four seasons under president/general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz. That’s something neither has experienced much since entering the NHL. Here are there losing seasons:
Lamoriello (Devils 1987-2015, Maple Leafs 2015-18, Islanders 2018-present)
1988-89 Devils: 27-41-12
1990-91 Devils: 32-33-15
2010-11 Devils: 38-39-5
2014-15 Devils: 32-36-14
2015-16 Maple Leafs: 29-42-11
Trotz (Predators 1998-2014, Capitals 2014-18, Islanders 2018-present)
1998-99 Predators*: 28-47-7
1999-00 Predators: 28-40-7-7
2000-01 Predators: 34-36-9-3
2001-02 Predators: 28-41-13-0
2002-03 Predators: 27-35-13-7
2012-13 Predators: 16-23-9