Internal competition for spots in the Islanders’ lineup — backside pressure, as coach Barry Trotz calls it — has intensified with the team nearly back to full health and, for the moment, not dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak.
"I think it’s a good problem to have," Josh Bailey said after Friday’s practice at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow as Trotz remained absent for a seventh day for family reasons. "We have a lot of talented guys in this room, and the teams that win have that."
Case in point, Austin Czarnik.
The depth forward has played well in each of his eight NHL games this season, including the Islanders’ last two while filling in as the third-line center. But with second-line center Brock Nelson returning from COVID-19 protocol and sharpshooting right wing Oliver Wahlstrom also expected to draw back in after his bout with the virus, Czarnik likely will find himself out of the lineup when the Islanders finally face the Devils on Thursday night at UBS Arena.
"We knew that he was a reliable player," said associate coach Lane Lambert, who continues to run the team in Trotz’s absence. "He’s got quickness. He’s got speed. But I think the biggest thing about him and the biggest reason that he’s having success is because he’s trustworthy. If you watch him in the defensive zone, he’s in the right positions and doing the right things. And he’s added a little bit of an element of speed and a touch of grit as well.
"He’s a guy that has the ability to play in the National Hockey League."
Czarnik had an assist in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win over the visiting Oilers despite logging a team-low 6:40 of ice time. He has a goal and three assists this season with the Islanders and six goals and nine assists in 20 games with AHL Bridgeport.
The Islanders signed him to a two-year, $1.45 million deal in 2020 after he played parts of two seasons with the Bruins and parts of two more with the Flames.
The 5-9, 170-pound Czarnik, 29, has 14 goals and 28 assists in 133 NHL regular-season games but has yet to earn a full-time role in the league.
"I think you just have to focus on what you can control," Czarnik said. "That’s coming to the rink every day ready to work and just having fun. If you’re not focusing on what’s going to happen or if you’re going to get sent down or be here for a while, and just go out there and have fun, that’s going to set you up for the most success that you can have.
"Right now, it’s getting ready for these practices and whatever happens happens, but we’re going to do it with a smile on our faces."
Notes & quotes: Lambert again had no update on top-pair defenseman Ryan Pulock (long-term injured reserve/lower body), who was hurt on Nov. 15 and has yet to resume practicing with the team despite being expected to miss four to six weeks.