Maybe Thomas Hickey needed a change of scenery.
He began his fourth professional season with the Manchester Monarchs, the AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, but Tuesday the Islanders scooped the 5’11, 190-pound defenseman off waivers.
“I was playing real good hockey, but [the Kings] have a blueprint and a lot of good defensemen that deserve to be in the NHL, and I just don’t think I was part of that plan," Hickey said. "But I feel like I’ve played a ton of good hockey and I’m glad the Islanders took a waiver on me and I’m going to make them happy they did.”
While a member of the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds, Hickey represented Team Canada at the 2008 and 2009 World Junior Championships, winning the Gold Medal both years, and captaining the 2009 squad. Islanders center John Tavares was Hickey’s teammate for both first place runs.
“Thomas’ contribution to both of those teams was his leadership and his anchoring the defense,” Tavares said. “He was the captain on a team with a handful of first-round picks and high-end skill guys that won gold.”
Making The Time Count The average NHL Training Camp consists of two to three weeks of meetings, practices, exhibition games and video sessions. As the players stepped off the ice Thursday after only their fourth formal skate, they now have one practice remaining before they drop the puck on Opening Night this Saturday. As a result, there are a lot of situational aspects of the game that need to worked on, which is why during Wednesday night’s scrimmage, the referees were instructed to call penalties frequently even if there was no infraction so the Islanders could go through game-like situations on special teams.
The two power play units used during the scrimmage and then during Thursday’s on-ice session featured the following:
Matt Moulson – John Tavares – Brad Boyes
Frans Nielsen – Mark Streit
Boyes fills the void left by PA Parenteau’s off-season departure, while Nielsen provides a defensive presence but with a hard shot and ability to play make.
Kyle Okposo –Michael Grabner – David Ullstrom
Andrew MacDonald – Travis Hamonic
After playing much of last year at the point on the power play, Okposo returns to play forward.
Last season the Islanders had considerable success with the man advantage, clicking at an 18.5% success rate, good enough for 8th in the NHL. In Wednesday night’s scrimmage, the blue team went 2-for-7.
During the scrimmage, the top two penalty kill units also saw significant time.
-The forwards consisted of Frans Nielsen partnered with Michael Grabner and Marty Reasoner paired with Matt Martin. During Thursday’s practice, Nielsen and Grabner were too busy working on the power play to get involved on the penalty kill. Head Coach Jack Capuano says more time will be focused on the penalty kill during Friday’s on-ice session.
Two seasons ago, the Islanders were a threatening unit on the penalty kill. The Islanders led the league with 15 shorthanded goals. Nielsen led the league with seven and Grabner was right on his tail with six of his own.
However, the penalty kill unit took a step backward last year. The Isles managed only four shorthanded goals and were 23rd in successfully killing off penalties.
Despite not getting much on-ice time to work on it, Capuano is happy that video has been a strong tool that should help improve the penalty kill statistics.
“Video is a great teaching tool for us as coaches,” said Capuano. “Every power play throws a different look, whether it’s a 2-3 spread, overload, 1-3-1. You’ve got to be prepared for what other teams are going to do and respond to that.”
Hickey joined his new team for the Blue & White Scrimmage Wednesday and took part in his first practice Thursday. With only two days until the Islanders' first game, Hickey doesn’t have much time to get acclimated and impress the Islanders coaching staff. But that hasn’t fazed the 23 year old blueliner.
“I think I’d rather go straight to a game than hop into a practice,” Hickey said. “You get very familiar when you play in a game situation. I probably show better in a game than I would in practice. That was a good way to start. There’s going to be a lot of adrenaline and extra energy that you might not normally have. That can go a long way in a condensed camp and a condensed start to the season. I think that’s going to work in my favor.”
Los Angeles selected Hickey with the fourth overall selection in the 2007 NHL Draft. After rounding out his junior career with the Thunderbirds, Hickey turned pro, joining the Monarchs late in the 2008-09 season, where current Bridgeport Sound Tigers Head Coach Scott Pellerin was serving as an assistant. Pellerin believes that Hickey has come a long way since those days.
“I think the opportunity is something that he needed,” Pellerin said. “With the depth that the Kings had, with them winning the Stanley Cup, he was playing behind guys like Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson and there just wasn’t a lot of room there for him to compete for a position. I think this is a great opportunity for him to get a chance to play and show what he’s capable of.”
Pellerin added that Hickey, who showcased offensive flair but needed work in the defensive zone early on in his career, has a strong foundation. Despite not having played an NHL game, the Calgary, AB native played 212 professional contests with the Monarchs, strengthening his defensive game to match his offensive talents.
“His hockey sense and his compete level have impressed me the most,” Pellerin said. “He’s very strong positionally. He makes a good first pass and he has a lot of experience for a young guy. He can play in a lot of situations.”
The Islanders have three defensemen who were on the roster at the end of last season, with six total spots to fill for the opening night roster. Along with Joe Finley, who the Islanders claimed off waivers from Buffalo on Monday, the Islanders have seven defensemen in camp. Hickey says the realization that his NHL debut could be just a couple of days away has definitely crossed his mind and motivated him to push harder.
“Yeah, it’s hard not to think about that,” Hickey said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of stuff I have to do, there’s a lot of systems to learn and there’s other d-men here that are thinking the same thing. I just have to take it one day at a time and be ready to do it and I’ll be thrilled. I’ve just got to work my way to that point first.”
Hickey may have only arrived Wednesday, but he already has a level of familiarity with certain teammates.
“His skating ability is unbelievable,” Travis Hamonic, whose tenure in the Western Hockey League overlapped Hickey’s, said. “The big key is that he really had a knack at picking the puck up and making the right plays. He captained the World Junior team and shows a lot of great leadership as well.”
Matt Moulson was in Manchester when Hickey first made the jump to the pros, and remembers the positive impression the young defenseman made on him.
“He thinks the game well so he’s always in a good position,” Moulson said. “I remember he was playing on our power play with us and he was extremely effective. I haven’t been able to see him in the last couple of years, but I always remembered he was a very intelligent player.”
Moulson, who played most of three seasons in the minor leagues until he finally had a chance to break out with the Islanders in 2009-10, understands the position Hickey is in now.
“He just has to come and grab that opportunity,” Moulson said. “Sometimes you get stuck in a numbers game and hopefully he excels here. I think a lot of pro sports is timing as to when you might switch teams. Sometimes with a change of atmosphere and the right timing you can excel even if you don’t change too much about your game. He’s a great player and in the right situation he’ll do really well.”