The need for defense depth is self-explanatory in the NHL but, as if to emphasize the point, the Islanders’ training camp search took on just an added bit of urgency with top-six stalwart Scott Mayfield missing practices this week
One last audition remains as the Islanders conclude their preseason against the Rangers on Saturday night at UBS Arena. The regular season opens against the visiting Panthers on Thursday night and there is a Monday deadline for the initial 23-man roster.
“It’s always a little stressful but, again, it’s whatever happens,” said Paul LaDue, whose strong training camp has left him a very viable candidate for a roster spot. “It’s a long season so you’ve just got to keep getting better.”
LaDue, 30, who has played 69 NHL games with the Kings and one with the Islanders last season, is competing with Grant Hutton, 27, who dressed for his first 16 NHL games with the Islanders last season, and Sebastian Aho, 26, who has played 61 games for the Islanders since 2017. Samuel Bolduc, 21, also is still in camp but likely needs more seasoning with the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport.
Smooth-skating Robin Salo, 22, who played 21 games for the Islanders last season, almost certainly has secured a spot in the top six, likely paired with Mayfield.
It’s expected that the Islanders will carry seven defensemen and 14 forwards, meaning LaDue, Hutton and Aho likely are competing for one spot. That changes if Mayfield remains unavailable.
“I’ve been feeling really good and it’s gotten better each day, so I’m grateful for the opportunity,” said LaDue, selected in the sixth round by the Kings in 2012. “As you get older, you’re trying not to think about that [jockeying for a roster spot]. I know if I play my best hockey that I can help this team out up here.”
LaDue and Hutton are stay-at-home defensemen who play a simple, physical game. The smaller Aho brings more offensive upside and skating ability, though he has shown to be more prone to turnovers.
“There’s a lot of really good competition and I think that’s super-healthy for the organization,” said Hutton, an undrafted free agent out of Miami (Ohio). “It really makes you have to take your game to a new level.
“I’ve never come to camp not thinking I didn’t have a chance.”
Hutton has played in three preseason games, logging a preseason-high 19:53 of ice time in Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime win in Philadelphia. LaDue has played in two games and assisted on Ross Johnston’s goal in Thursday night’s 5-2 win over the visiting Devils as his shot from the right point deflected off the hulking wing’s chest.
Aho has played in two preseason games, logging 15:34 against the Flyers on Tuesday.
The Islanders did not practice on Friday so it was unclear whether Mayfield will be able to return on Saturday or which of the roster candidates might play against the Rangers.
But there is an added urgency for those answers.