Usually, trying to project an NHL team’s roster coming out of training camp is all about subtraction.
But not for NHL 2019-20 2.0 as the league tries to restart a season put on pause since March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now it’s all about figuring out which additions the Islanders will make in the formal training camp, set to begin July 10, that will serve as Phase 3 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan.
The Islanders, seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference, are set to play the 10th-seeded Panthers in a best-of-five qualifying series for the NHL’s 16-team playoffs. Play is expected to resume around July 31 as 12 teams from each conference will be sent to separate, as-yet-to-be-selected hub cities. Chicago, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Toronto are the remaining candidates to host games.
NHL teams are allowed to carry a maximum of 23 players on their active roster before a season’s trade deadline. That’s typically divvied up as two goalies, seven or eight defensemen and 13 or 14 forwards.
It’s expected that NHL teams will be allowed to carry 28 skaters plus goaltenders under the return-to-play format.
The Islanders had 26 players on their roster — two goalies, eight defensemen and 16 forwards — for their last game before the season was paused, a 5-4 shootout loss to the Canucks in Vancouver on March 10.
That did not include injured regulars Casey Cizikas (left leg laceration) and defenseman Adam Pelech (Achilles tendon). Both players will be available for the start of the Islanders’ Phase 3 training camp.
Adding those two, and assuming that the players on the roster on March 10 will be on the roster for the qualifying series, gives the Islanders 26 skaters toward their limit of 28.
NHL teams are expected to be allowed to bring 30 skaters into training camp, so it’s likely that four players will be battling for two spots.
The top candidates from the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport to be brought to training camp likely are goalie Christopher Gibson and four from the following group: defensemen Sebastian Aho and Parker Wotherspoon and forwards Kieffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom and Tanner Fritz. The latter is healthy again after being limited to four games with the Sound Tigers this season.
The X factor, of course, would be any training camp injuries.
Though the NHL allowed teams to reopen their practice facilities on June 8 for voluntary small group workouts, Islanders coach Barry Trotz has said he expects players to start training camp at different fitness levels because of the long layoff. Many around the league have expressed concern about groin and hamstring issues.
Having nine NHL-tested defensemen — as the Islanders would with Pelech healthy — is a luxury. Still, the projection here is that Trotz and president and general manager Lou Lamoriello will believe the team cannot have enough defense depth in a quarantined bubble. The obvious candidate for addition is Aho, 24, who was Bridgeport’s most consistent defenseman this season and had a goal and three assists in 22 games for the Islanders in 2017-18.
As for an extra forward, Fritz, 28, would be the safe pick with 42 games of NHL experience. But the Islanders have an abundance of third- and fourth-liners; what they might need is a reserve scoring threat.
Wahlstrom, the 11th overall pick in 2018, is intriguing because of his lethal — if not yet fully accurate — wrist shot. He went without a point in nine games with the Islanders this season before being returned to Bridgeport to work on his defensive game.
Bellows, the 19th overall pick in 2016, had two goals and one assist in eight games for the Islanders this season and 22 goals and nine assists in 52 games with Bridgeport. That included 21 goals in his last 33 games as his game rapidly matured. He seems poised to win a spot.
There also is the separate issue of Russian goalie Ilya Sorokin. He’ll be on the roster if it’s ruled he can sign an entry-level deal and be immediately eligible. Right now, the NHL does not want that to be the case.
Islanders projected roster
Forwards: Josh Bailey, Mathew Barzal, Kieffer Bellows, Anthony Beauvillier, Derick Brassard, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Michael Dal Colle, Jordan Eberle, Ross Johnston, Otto Koivula, Leo Komarov, Tom Kuhnhackl, Andrew Ladd, Anders Lee, Matt Martin, Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
Defensemen: Sebastian Aho, Johnny Boychuk, Noah Dobson, Andy Greene, Thomas Hickey, Nick Leddy, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews.
Goalies: Christopher Gibson, Thomas Greiss, Ilya Sorokin, Semyon Varlamov.