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Islanders roster in flux heading into game at Barclays Center

Islanders center Ryan Strome looks on during Group

Islanders center Ryan Strome looks on during Group A training camp at Nassau Coliseum on Friday, September 19, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

A few words about rosters and evaluations, all of which are still in flux heading into Friday night's Barclays Center game for the Islanders against the Devils:

-- Sometimes it's less about who's in than who's out. There are certainly players not in Friday's Isles lineup who have roster spots assured -- Frans Nielsen is the biggest one. His role as the No. 2/3 center, depending on how you view these things, is completely set in stone. So Nielsen sitting out tonight is not a knock on him.

I'd say the same goes for Cal Clutterbuck, who has some sort of right-wing spot pretty well locked down. Clutterbuck told Newsday recently that his approach to a camp that's filled with roster battles is no different than last year's, when the NHL roster was just about set from the start of camp.

"You have to be able to adapt, I think," Clutterbuck said. "You want to be a guy who can fill whatever role you're given. I think that helps your approach to any camp because you have to gain trust before you can really do anything."

Clutterbuck was effective on the fourth line Wednesday, though he could end up being a third-line guy with Nielsen and some as-yet-undetermined left wing as well. If you're not John Tavares (or Nielsen), you better have more to offer than just one dimension.

-- Tavares and Kyle Okposo have not exactly been sharp in their two previous games, with Josh Bailey and Mikhail Grabovski on their left side. Jack Capuano is trying Anders Lee there Friday. Tavares said he had no objection to playing 3-4 preseason games and, knowing how tough he is on his own play, I would think he'd like as much time as possible in game situations to start sharpening things up. Same for Okposo.

-- The interesting second line tonight has Grabovski again on the wing, a place he said he's only played in the KHL during the 2012-13 lockout and at the end of last season with the Capitals, with Brock Nelson in the middle and Nikolay Kulemin on the right.

Nelson, as he did last year, is continuing to impress as a center, making it harder for the coaching staff to put him on the wing. Another strong performance Friday and it could be Grabovski that ends up shifting out of the crowded center spot to use his great speed along the side wall.

-- Of the guys who are sitting out Friday that could be feeling the roster squeeze -- and this is speculation, given that the coaches have been extremely tight-lipped with their individual assessments so far -- Cory Conacher may be a man without a spot. He was good with Grabovski and Kulemin in St. John's on Monday, but seemingly tried too hard to make things happen on Wednesday playing with Nielsen and Jack Skille.

Conacher is a hard worker, but can he wedge out guys like Michael Grabner, Bailey, Matt Martin, Clutterbuck or Colin McDonald on the lower-six wing depth chart? It seems unlikely right now.

Ryan Strome, surprisingly, may be another guy without a spot right now. He is extremely talented, but he struggled moving to the wing with Lee and Nelson on Wednesday. As one of the only two real roster considerations who does not need waivers to be sent down, Strome needs to outshine his competition. He hasn't done that yet, though there's another week for him to get there.

That may cause some eyes to roll in Isles land, but this camp is not about finding ways to keep people happy. It's about, as Capuano says, finding the best 23 guys to be there Opening Night. The Isles can say that now and genuinely mean it, unlike in thinner years gone by. That means even a world-class player like Strome has to come out of the gate blazing, because there's older, savvier guys who will take his place.

If Strome does get sent down, he'll be unhappy. Not Nino Niederreiter unhappy, so let's not go there, but it would be the most stark sign yet that the Isles are not handing out roster spots based on draft position or prospect rankings. They want results.

New York Sports