The Islanders have had nearly three months to figure out how to cope with losing three of their longest serving players, mostly in an off-ice sense — Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin were a part of the Islanders organization for a combined three decades from their draft years.
Now, as the Isles dig into the first weekend of training camp and already with three games in the next two days — home to the Flyers on Monday and split-squad games in Philadelphia and Manhattan on Tuesday — comes the harder part: Figuring out how to replace those three on the ice.
“I’ve thought about it all summer when we lost those guys,” said Jack Capuano, who was back at Northwell Health Ice Center on Saturday after working as an assistant coach for Team USA at the World Cup. “We’ll experiment with a few guys in those situations. We’ll get some reps in and see who fits best and fill the voids of the guys we lost.”
Right wing candidates
It took a few seasons for Okposo to show he could be a reliable top-line right wing, but once he took off in the 2013-14 season he was consistently in an elite class. His 0.88 points per game the past three seasons ranked 15th among all forwards and second among full-time right wings, behind only Patrick Kane.
With his departure to the Sabres on July 1, the Islanders are the thinnest on the right side. Josh Bailey is skating there in the early stages of camp, on a line with Anders Lee and Ryan Strome. Josh Ho-Sang may be the most talented of the right wings in this camp, but he’s been a pro for all of two days and likely would be best served spending time in the AHL.
The natural fit for Okposo’s role is someone who filled it five years ago for the Islanders. PA Parenteau signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal on July 2 to try and recapture the magic he made with John Tavares and Matt Moulson in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
Those were pretty much the last years that Tavares had consistent linemates. Okposo and Tavares did not start last season together and played only 20 or so regular-season games in 2015-16 on the same line before being catalysts for the first-round playoff series win.
“I don’t want to say I fit the best there because it’s not my place,” Parenteau said. “We had good chemistry when I was here, we’re good friends off the ice, but I’m going to play where Cappy tells me to play. I recall playing with Fransy quite a bit too, and we were productive. When I feel good about my game I can play with anybody and be productive.”
Only two players have led the league in hits (an admittedly flawed statistic, as it’s recorded differently in just about every arena) the last eight seasons: Martin, who’s led the last five, and Cal Clutterbuck, who led the previous three years with the Wild.
Martin is gone. Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas have honed their roles as more agitators than straight hitters the past three years and neither has plans to change with the big hitter off to the Leafs.
“It was definitely a learning process from when I started. I ran around a lot, a lot of hits being finished that I didn’t need to finish,” Clutterbuck said. “Not that it’s always a negative, but there’s also a time and a place and to become more effective you learn where those spots are. After nine years, I’ve been fortunate enough to figure that out. I think I’ve found a good balance.”
And, whether it’s new addition Jason Chimera on the left side or a younger Islander like Shane Prince or Alan Quine, the fourth line will likely play a different style this season. But not forgetting to bring the sandpaper.
“That’s our game and we can’t get away from it,” Cizikas said. “As soon as Clutter and I start thinking that way, try to make pretty plays and be fancy out there, we’re not doing our jobs and doing what we do best.”
Strome put it best: “I don’t think you can replace a Frans Nielsen.” The quiet, effective veteran did a bit of everything for the Islanders over his decade here, killing penalties, carrying the puck on the top power-play unit, marking the opposition’s top center and winning numerous shootouts with his lethal backhand.
Strome, back at center to start camp, looks most likely to fill Nielsen’s No. 2 center spot on the depth chart. The additions of Andrew Ladd, Parenteau and Chimera in free agency were made with an eye on replacing the three who left, but with an eye keenly on Nielsen’s versatility: All three have power-play experience and Ladd and Chimera have penalty-killing experience.
Among active players with at least 40 shootout attempts, Nielsen is second at 51.2 percent conversion. Parenteau is fifth, at 45.2 percent (19-for-42).
But it will be Strome and Brock Nelson who will carry the center burden at even strength that Nielsen did.
“I do think everyone can step up,” Strome said. “If the way it shakes out, me, Johnny, Brock and Casey, I think we’re all pretty comfortable in the middle of the ice.
“For me, I think it’s time to take that next step. There’s an opportunity there. First few days I feel great, I feel like I’m flying out there. I certainly want to take that role that’s there.”