Andrew Ladd is hurt, once again, with a knee injury. He tore his ACL after taking an awkward hit at center ice and falling hard on Sunday against the Arizona Coyotes. The knee requires surgery, and Ladd will miss five months.
He already missed the majority of the season due to a similar injury in his other knee. In the 26 games he’s played for the Islanders this season, Ladd has 11 points (3 goals, 8 assists). Not the worst numbers, but also not what fans hoped for – especially because he was supposed to be considered a “trade deadline move” since he came off IR around the same time Lou Lamoriello stood pat. This injury comes only a week after the Islanders also announced that Valtteri Filppula will miss four weeks with an upper-body injury.
In recent interviews, Barry Trotz said, “In playoffs, you’re going to have different people get hurt… It’s next man up mentality, stick with what we do and go from there.”
This is pretty obvious: the playoffs, and the road to the playoffs, are rough. The referees aren’t making it any easier either by ignoring bad hits. Even the Islanders have been guilty lately (Matt Martin sent the Flyers’ Couturier into the dressing room, and Brock Nelson slammed a Coyotes player’s head into the glass the next game). What matters most is how a team responds to those injuries.
Like Trotz added, “It’s going to be an opportunity for someone.” And Islanders fans want to know who.
Well, Tanner Fritz received one of the opportunities when he was called up from Bridgeport to replace Valtteri Filppula. The young right winger has spent a lot of time playing center for the Bridgeport Soundtigers this season and has experience on the Bridgeport power play. This also isn’t his first time called up to the Islanders which makes him a great fit for the team as it currently stands, since there’s already some pre-existing chemistry between him and the other players – something so crucial going into the post season. Fritz isn’t the best or fastest skater, but he’s a playmaker. He also won fans over with his creative penalty killing in his first game for New York this week.
Many fans were disappointed that Josh Ho-Sang wasn’t called back up instead. After all, he shares most of the advantages Fritz does, and he’s a natural center rather than a winger converted to a center. Ladd’s injury presented another chance for Ho-Sang, but Lamoriello stated early that he didn’t plan on making any more call-ups. The Isles only have one left, and Lamoriello trusts this team as it is. That leaves Michael Dal Colle, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Ross Johnston as replacements for Ladd.
Dal Colle was the first of these options to see ice time, playing in the Islanders’ 4-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night and their 5-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night. Through his 24 games this season, Dal Colle has only 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists), but he makes himself known in the corners and tries for tip-ins and screens in front of the net. He could have benefited hugely from more ice time throughout the rest of the regular season but was constantly a healthy scratch. A good, young player, he will definitely develop into an important asset to the Islanders, but perhaps isn’t what they need this late in the season.
Kuhnhackl is a similar option, though with far more experience and confidence. He also saw ice time in Winnipeg since Fritz was scratched for a “maintenance day”. In his 32 games this season, Kuhnhackl has 9 points (4 goals, 5 assists). He’s good at both fighting for the puck and leading the rush. In the beginning of the season, he scored that insane goal while falling on his back and desperately swiping the puck toward the net. Not only is he creative, he’s definitely the kind of veteran a coach wants on the bench since he brings the experience of two Stanley Cups.
Whereas Johnston is the complete opposite. Still considered a rookie, this isn’t his first year called up to the Islanders. In his 17 games this season, he only has 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists), but it’s important to recognize that he’s usually played as a replacement for the fourth line. Johnston is typically viewed as an enforcer, valued for his hitting and fighting abilities. He’s drastically undervalued when it comes to skating and puck-handling. Of course, he still needs development, but he’s shown a lot of potential in his rare games this season. Just like Dal Colle, it’s risky to rely on a barely-tested rookie to close the season when the team needs dependability and experience, but Johnston’s combination of tough guy fourth-liner and unexpected puck skills might be exactly what the team needs, too.
After all, the miraculous come-back win in Winnipeg came as a result of the Isles finally showing some grit and physicality when the game was truly on the line in the last five minutes. Casey Cizikas’ relentless stance at the side of the net resulted in the goal that tied the game and kept the Islanders’ hopes alive, so maybe a similar hungry third/fourth liner could be exactly what the Islanders need right now. Yet Casey wasn’t the only player to score in Winnipeg. Though Dal Colle didn’t score any goals, he came close on multiple occasions. He showed similar determination and drive throughout the second and third periods. So, which of these three men does Trotz play as the Islanders look to secure a playoff position? The rookie who’s proved himself dependable, the highly experienced veteran, or the rookie who still has something to prove?
After slumping down to third place and looking like they would quickly be evicted from the playoffs, the Islanders are back in the Metropolitan Division’s second place and only need two points to clinch. It’s been a wild, historic year, and the Isles just might be willing to take chances.
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