Newsday’s Arthur Staple answered questions from Twitter followers for his latest Islanders mailbag Thursday as the Isles continue their preseason schedule.
Here are a few answers for this week:
@Nick_Giordano: Hey Arthur who’s been your favorite prospect to watch and who do you think are going to make the opening night roster?
Hard to argue with Mathew Barzal, who looks very determined to not leave anything to chance this time around. When I talked to him yesterday he stressed how much he loves hearing feedback from the new coaching staff that Doug Weight has assembled and I think he wasn’t getting that same feedback the last two camps with Jack Capuano in charge.
Devon Toews, who will be discussed at greater length down below, is just a smart, smart player. His ability to play up to the AHL level in his first pro year last season may have surprised some, but it’s clear he’s got the right tools to be a solid NHL defenseman. I doubt he’ll make the opening-night roster — again, more on this below — but you will see him in an Islander uniform this season.
@szisles: What do you think is the biggest X factor this season to catapult team into playoffs?
Goaltending. The Islanders’ goaltending has been intermittently good over the last three seasons — Jaroslav Halak came in and set the franchise record for wins in 2014-15 and was the best Islander in their seven-game loss to the Caps, then Thomas Greiss got hot at the right time to lift the team past the Panthers in the 2015-16 playoffs and no one was consistently good enough last season despite some occasionally strong play.
It just always seems to be the position that makes or breaks a team that’s not an established contender or a wannabe. This season seems to be the first since Greiss joined the club that there will truly be two veteran goaltenders fighting for playing time. As Weight said last night, “Sometimes the big German is gonna be mad at me and sometimes Jaro is gonna be mad at me, and that’s not a bad thing.”
@niccg24: Do you think Beau and Barzal will make the roster this season? And do you think we’ll see Ho Sang up on the roster too?
For all three of the Isles’ waiver-exempt young forwards to make the club on opening night, Weight and GM Garth Snow are going to have to do a real about-face from previous seasons and commit to giving all three kids playing time at the expense of some useful, well-liked veterans.
If all three make it opening night, there is room on the roster. Stephen Gionta, who was banged up in his first preseason game and hasn’t skated since, would probably have been the 13th forward. Now, that spare role could be filled by Jason Chimera, by Nikolay Kulemin or someone else who hasn’t performed well enough.
The injuries to Shane Prince and Alan Quine give the Isles some roster flexibility to start the year, so it could definitely work to have Beauvillier, Barzal and Ho-Sang playing the first few weeks. They’ll need to play well, of course — there’s simply more pressure on a waiver-exempt player these days, for better or worse.
@sab31nyi: Has #Duchene ship sailed for good or does Garth still have a plan? #isles haven’t been mentioned in ‘the mix’ in recent reports
There could always be a late wrinkle or one phone call that changes things, but my sense is the Islanders haven’t been aggressive at all since around draft time. The Avs haven’t moved off their big ask for Duchene and that was before the Isles traded Travis Hamonic, the one piece of a potential deal that would actually fill a Colorado need.
Seems like Joe Sakic hasn’t moved much off his ask with any team, since it’s clear Duchene wants out and a few teams are eager to get him (Columbus, Ottawa, Montreal). I don’t see the Islanders getting involved again unless something changes dramatically on the Avs end.
@SteveTVDirector: Who has impressed you the most of players we don’t normally see?
Kristers Gudlevskis looks like a seasoned pro in net, his ill-advised charge to break up a play at the Coliseum on Sunday aside. Christopher Gibson has also looked good but the Isles seem to have gotten this one right — bring in a solid young goaltender at the AHL level, not to sit by at the NHL level.
Parker Wotherspoon has been to a few camps but now that he’s staying in the pros it’s interesting to watch his play. He’s still a little ways away but, much like Toews, he seems to know his own skill set and plays to it.
Up front, college free agent Jeff Kubiak is an intriguing player. He had a solid four-year career at Cornell and earned a full camp look after a strong prospect camp in July. He’s 6-foot-3, 200 pounds and his line, with Toews and Tanner Fritz, did some good things Wednesday night.
@Harry4naris: Any sense of tactical changes yet? Seemed to be more neutral zone passing for entries at the coli game instead of stretch passes
Weight spoke about some defensive-zone changes they’ve been implementing, wanting what he called “a few less red-zone shots.” He’s had his defensemen doing a lot of net-front physical work, trying to get clearer sight lines for the goaltenders. Weight also wants his forwards to be more aggressive at the points in preventing shots getting through.
And the changes he started to install last season, with the center swinging low in the defensive zone to not only help below the hash marks but get the transition game moving with speed, have been kept. “I don’t know if you call it more offensive, more attacking, but that’s how we want to play,” Weight said the other day.
@jonnywax: Would you consider #Isles most unpredictable NHL team this season? Some say bottom of East. Others feel not poss worse than last season’s 94
They do seem to be rated quite low by the national pundits and by Vegas (the oddsmakers, not the team). To me, the Metro projects a lot tighter than it has in the past couple seasons. The Capitals and Rangers made some major alterations, the Penguins lost their safety net in goal and have played nine months of hockey the past two seasons, the Hurricanes, Flyers and Devils might be better and the Blue Jackets could be anywhere.
So perhaps the Isles are undervalued. Or perhaps the Tavares contract situation, the arena uncertainty and the overall tension in the organization makes a mess of the season. It could go a few different ways.
@andersIee: Isles traded a core player for draft picks. Do you think they will put the picks back into the team now with a trade?
I imagine the hope is to be sitting comfortably in a playoff spot with the Flames struggling mightily at the trade deadline so that the Isles can deal their own first-rounder for immediate help and still have a lottery ticket.
That’s the dream scenario. But even short of that, there are ready assets to deal that would bring back something useful. Unless the Isles are dead in the water by midseason, I think they will deal one of those picks for help this season.
@RTaub_: Is Brock Nelson on the hot seat this season?
Not sure if a player can be on the hot seat — that’s usually for coaches and GMs — and aside from perhaps wishing for more emotion on his face, I don’t really see Nelson as a huge issue for the Isles.
He has 66 goals the last three seasons – that’s 52nd in the league over that span. The number of Islanders who have three straight 40-point seasons in the last few years is pretty small — it’s Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and that’s it.
Nelson and Ho-Sang have been together in two preseason games, so I have a feeling that’s two-thirds of a line. Perhaps it’ll be Beauvillier on the left, perhaps (my feeling) it’ll be Andrew Ladd. And a functioning power play with Nelson at the net front on the second unit might bump his total up some more.
But if Nelson goes for 25 goals and 48 points as a second-liner and second PP unit player, I don’t think that’s an issue. Maybe he’ll get mad more for some of you.
@WordsByWonka: If goal is to play the best lineup does Toews have a shot to make this team? Risk losing Mayfield but he’s 8D and toews maybe 4/5
We have a lot of conversations on Twitter and here about roles. Mayfield may indeed be the No. 8 guy, but he requires waivers and can play well in spot duty, even if that’s not his preference. Toews could end up being a great second-pair defenseman, but he’s got one pro season under his belt and he needs experience. He also doesn’t need waivers.
Now, if Toews were skating rings around everyone else, perhaps. But he’s a steady, heady guy and this organization — every organization — would rather have their young defensemen playing 20-plus minutes in all situations in the AHL than spotting in and out in the NHL.
And this organization — every organization — needs nine or 10 or 11 defensemen every year. So Toews will be back, probably sooner than you think.