When Barry Trotz put the word "unfortunately" in front of a sentence about how healthy his top six defensemen were last season, he obviously did not mean that it was unfortunate for the Islanders.
What the coach was referring to was the effect on defenseman Sebastian Aho, a 2017 draft pick who played in 22 games in 2017-18 and only three since — all last season — spending most of his time with Bridgeport of the AHL.
But the Islanders seem to believe there is a place for Aho, 25.
While they did not announce their initial 23-man roster publicly on Monday — it was due to the league at 5 p.m. — signs pointed to Aho as the seventh defenseman.
Trotz was asked after practice what has enabled Aho to stick around this long.
"Probably it starts with attitude," he said. "You can’t play at a high level, you can’t keep improving, unless you have a really good attitude. And I think that’s where it starts with Sebastian.
"He’s got a good work ethic and he’s got good hockey IQ. Those three things don’t get in the way of his situation. He just continues to do what he needs to do so he’s ready when we call upon him.
"Unfortunately, last year we didn’t have any injuries on the back end, and it was tough. We were rolling pretty good. The pairs were pretty solid, so he didn’t get a lot of time. But it hasn’t diminished his enthusiasm to play."
The Islanders on Monday assigned defensemen Samuel Bolduc and Robin Salo and forwards Richard Panik and Anatolii Golyshev to Bridgeport. Panik needed to clear waivers, which he did on Sunday.
Trotz called Panik "a pleasant surprise for me. I thought he had lots of game." The coach also praised Salo’s poise.
Defenseman Thomas Hickey cleared waivers on Sunday and can be sent to Bridgeport. The Islanders put forward Michael Dal Colle on waivers on Monday.
Defenseman Erik Gustafsson, who had been with the Islanders on a professional tryout offer, signed with the Blackhawks.
The six defensemen who figure to play against the host Hurricanes in Thursday’s opener are Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Zdeno Chara, Noah Dobson, Andy Greene and Scott Mayfield.
But such things are fluid based on performance and health, so circumstances can and will change during the season.
In 2020-21, the top six defensemen missed a total of 11 games — 10 by Dobson. That sort of good fortune is unlikely to be matched this season. So Aho might get his chance.
Notes & quotes: Trotz said G Semyon Varlamov ("soreness") continues to move toward a return to action. "He’s doing fine. He’s been skating for a little bit here and he’ll be joining our group fairly soon, I would think." . . . Trotz on the 13 road games to start the season: "We have a lot of trust in our group. We understand the situation, and this group has been really great in that they’re not complainers. They just understand that life’s not always easy."