The Islanders will carry one extra forward and two extra defensemen when they hit the ice Friday at New Jersey, and as lines and pairings continue to take shape, two “new” faces on the back line stand out.
Matt Donovan, who played three games with the Islanders in 2011-12 but spent last season with AHL Bridgeport, and Griffin Reinhart, the Islanders first round selection in the 2012 Draft, made the 23-man roster. The other six defensemen on the team were all with the Islanders last season, but head coach Jack Capuano doesn’t have anybody penciled in as “top-6” yet for Oct. 4. Capuano says it’s entirely up to the players to determine which defensemen will dress.
“Their performance will dictate the lineup,” Capuano said. “We’ll decide from game-to-game. We all have to sacrifice and have the willingness to battle for one another. That's how you win hockey games.”
In the past, Capuano has utilized the Islanders blue line depth, rotating players in and out of the lineup based on performance. He made it clear that Donovan, who beat out 11 other defensemen in training camp, isn’t on Long Island to sit in a press box.
“Matt Donovan is offensive; it's as simple as that,” Capuano said. “We lost Mark Streit. He was obviously a guy who could run the power play. Matt plays the way I want the D to play in my system as far as activating and being the fourth man involved in the attack.”
Donovan, who led Bridgeport defensemen in goals (14), assists (34) and points (48) in 75 games last season, said he has had plenty of conversations with coaches and the player development staff, and has rounded his game in the defensive zone to become more NHL-ready.
“I had enough talks last year when I wasn't getting called up,” Donovan said. “They told me to just keep concentrating on defense first, keep the intensity up and be ready to play every game. I did that all last year and I think they knew I had improved those elements heading into camp. Luckily I had a good camp and preseason.”
Reinhart is in a different position because he is still eligible to return to his junior team, the Edmonton Oil Kings, any time before the Islanders 10th regular season game on Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh. Capuano wants to see everything he can from the 19-year-old before deciding whether to keep Reinhart on the 23-man roster.
“We’ll evaluate his practices daily, see how he plays, and then go from there,” Capuano said. “With the [eligibility] rules, it’s an opportunity for a good, young defenseman to get a look. Right now, everybody’s got a chance.”
Reinhart, who has hung his hat to this point on being a shutdown defenseman first, beat a defender one-on-one for a goal in his first preseason game at Calgary on Sept. 17.
“I think I've always been criticized about my skating,” Reinhart said. “It’s improved a lot every year and I think this year it took another big jump. The coaches said to keep playing the way I am and keep putting the effort in. Obviously, this is just the beginning and there’s a ways to go, but so far I've proven that I can play here and I just have to keep pushing to get better.”
Reinhart is trying hard not to think too far ahead, but he realizes there’s a possibility that his NHL debut could be just around the corner. While nerves play a role in virtually every player’s first game, the cool-headed defenseman is confident he’ll be ready.
“Fortunately I’ve played in some really important games internationally and in junior,” Reinhart said. “I've done pretty well at keeping a calm demeanor so I think I'm as well-prepared as I can be for when [my debut] comes.”
The Islanders have full practices Wednesday and Thursday before heading to Newark to take on the Devils Friday.