Mid-way through the season, the Islanders have finally found their groove.
With more than 30 games left to play, they are far from clinching a play-offs spot but starting to look like it’s definitely possible. There is no coincidence that this improvement is due in part to the emergence of the kids, and fans should start preparing for trade deadline activity that protects the kids but releases some veterans.
Who to trade is getting hard to say, since all four lines are producing. That Kid Who Won The Calder is hot again. Eberle reached 200 career points on Tuesday. The best fourth line in hockey is looking more like a third line with how many goals they’ve scored. The third line looks complete with Dal Colle fitting nicely on the right wing of Filppula and Komarov. Since Dal Colle has found a home on the team, though, what is going to happen when Ladd makes a full recovery? Skating on his own at practice earlier in the week, Ladd has a no-trade clause in his contract and is a favorite among fans. In previous seasons, he was an assistant captain and a top goal scorer. Dal Colle, however, is a much-needed grinder. In the last several games, no one on the team has dug for pucks as hard as Dal Colle or forechecked as often. He may not be a hot goal scorer, but he fights for the puck and creates plays.
Filppula and Komarov have also each made their cases to stay recently. Filppula started the season with a scoring streak which he’s started to pick up again, especially with the overtime winner on Tuesday. Komarov, like Dal Colle, has fought hard and often for the puck, setting up plays from behind the net and chasing down rebounds. Though he hasn’t been the most consistent player all season, he’s starting to really show his worth. This leaves Kuhnhackl as the lone possible third-line player for trade. He already doesn’t see much ice time despite his skill so that Dal Colle can play instead. A trade might make sense for him; no hard feelings, just trading him to a team that will play him more, like he deserves.
Another trade possibility, that borders on blasphemy, is Clutterbuck. No one wants to break up the best fourth line in hockey after it was just re-formed over the summer with Martin’s return, but Clutterbuck is the weakest player on that line. He’s scoring less, turning the puck over more, and hustling slower than anyone else. Analysts loved saying that the Isle’s first line was a product of Tavares for years, but no one will admit that, recently, Clutterbuck is a product of Cizikas. Without Clutterbuck on the roster, Johnston would see more ice time to grow into the exceptional fourth-liner he could be.
The defense is looking stronger than ever, too. Even if they can’t reliably get the puck out of the zone, they are more reliably protecting their goaltender. Toews has been an incredible addition to the team. With three goals in his first ten games, there is no way Toews should feel threatened by Hickey’s, who also skated alone at practice earlier in the week, pending return. Instead, it’s Sbisa or Pelech who should be afraid. Similar to Kuhnhackl, Sbisa rarely plays. His lackluster performances could be due to the fact that he’s always rusty, only practicing never playing, but that is not an acceptable excuse when there are other defensemen competing for the spot. Pelech, on the other hand, plays constantly but with a similar lackluster effort. He has moments of brilliance, especially in the last few games, but he also gives the puck away, is lazy at the blue line, and is fought off the puck in the corners and along the boards.
All of these trades are made with very little return in mind other than draft picks. The Islanders have so many prospects waiting to be called up, that the team doesn’t need any fresh faces, particularly not if they are older, this year or next year. However, the Islanders are dangerously low on draft picks to replenish their prospects after this crop is called up. Even if they trade Ho-Sang, since he and management don’t seem to get along, there’s also Keiffer Bellows, Travis St. Denis, Matt Gaudreau, Mike Sislo, Otto Koivula, and Scott Eansor making serious waves in the AHL waiting for the call to the NHL. As for defensive prospects, Sebastian Aho, Mitchell Vande Sompel, Kyle Burroughs, and Parker Wotherspoon have also all made names for themselves and are awaiting NHL ice time. In the recent World Juniors, Noah Dobson, Logan Cockerill, and Oliver Wahlstrom all performed excellently as well.
There will still be Leddy, Boychuk, Hickey, Komarov, Filppula, Lee, Cizikas, Martin, Nelson, and Bailey for a veteran presence in the locker room. The team does not have to consist of mostly veterans for a veteran presence, after all. Lowering the team’s average age and increasing the team’s average speed could do wonders in this second half of the season as the Islanders approach the fight for the playoffs. Hopefully not many people are traded or moved, since the team is clearly playing well together as it is now, but something has to be shaken up for best results going forward.
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