The emotional, successful return of Thomas Hickey to the Islanders’ lineup may be a short-lived one. But it still may have long-term implications as the NHL’s April 12 trade deadline approaches.
Hickey’s seven-plus seasons of NHL experience could be enticing to another team as Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello tries to improve his team. Or, Lamoriello could be convinced Hickey and Sebastian Aho are enough defense depth for the playoff push.
Defenseman Noah Dobson remained on the league’s COVID-19 protocol list on Sunday, making it extremely likely he will miss his fifth straight game when the Islanders conclude a three-game series with the Flyers on Monday night in Philadelphia. It starts either a three- or four-game road trip, depending on whether Thursday night’s game in Boston can be played. The Islanders’ Tuesday night game in Boston has already been postponed with five Bruins on the league’s protocol list.
"Depth is so important going through this," coach Barry Trotz said before the Islanders had a day off on Sunday. "The number of games and we’re going to have to do it together. Everybody has injuries."
The 32-year-old Hickey had two assists in the Islanders’ four-goal first period as they snapped a two-game losing streak with a 6-1 win over the Flyers on Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum. It marked Hickey’s first NHL game since May 3, 2019 when the Hurricanes completed their four-game sweep of the Islanders in the second round of the playoffs and his first regular-season game since April 4, 2019.
Dobson, the 12th overall pick in 2018, will eventually reclaim his spot in the lineup. But Hickey, finally given a chance, was able to show why he was a mainstay among the Islanders’ top six defensemen from 2013-18.
Hickey suffered a concussion two seasons ago that led to the since-traded Devon Toews taking his lineup spot. Last season, a concussion and other injuries limited him to 14 games for the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport and Hickey also dealt with the loss of his older brother, Dan, to a brain tumor.
"Our locker room is very tight and there’s probably not a person in that locker room that wasn’t wishing Thomas a real good night," Trotz said. "Thomas is an outstanding person, first, and then he played outstanding for not playing in a long time and going through some of the issues with his own family. You talk about a character pro, I don’t think there’s too many people that are higher than Thomas Hickey."
But the Islanders also know the value of defense depth. Last season, they reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993. But defenseman Adam Pelech’s Achilles’ tendon injury that January – expected to be season-ending – nearly scuttled their playoff run before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the season in March.
Lamoriello acquired ex-Devils captain Andy Greene in February and Pelech was able to return when play resumed in August.
Before Dobson’s COVID-related absence, Trotz had used the same six defensemen for the first 28 games. That left both Hickey and Aho watching and waiting, with Hickey admitting he started doubting he would ever get a chance.
Now, he can show either the Islanders – or another team – he still belongs in the NHL.