Coming into 2013 Training Camp, it was a foregone conclusion that the Islanders makeup was going to be far different from the previous season. With only three returning blueliners from the 2011-12 squad, and the need for another veteran center, General Manager Garth Snow made a series of acquisitions to give the Islanders a level of depth they hadn’t enjoyed in years.
Over the offseason, the club had already added defenseman Matt Carkner and forward Eric Boulton to give the lineup some toughness. Brad Boyes was inked to fill a top-line role, while power play whiz Lubomir Visnovsky, acquired in a draft day trade, added some versatility to the back end.
But it was a five-day span during mid-January that saw the Islander add defensemen Radek Martinek, Joe Finley, Thomas Hickey and Brian Strait, as well as center Keith Aucoin. Suddenly, the team had nine serviceable blueliners, as well as a pivot in Aucoin with more than 800 games of professional experience under his belt.
The end result was a roster filled with players that had something to prove, all hungry for playing time.
“It probably pushed everyone’s level of play,” Aucoin said. “We had a lot of guys here and everybody wanted to be in the lineup, so everybody was working hard at practice and hard in the games. Everybody wanted to produce. There were no egos on this team. Everybody had one goal and that was winning. It didn’t matter how we did it.”
The Islanders carried two extra defensemen for the early part of the season, which came in handy after Carkner went down with a groin injury in early February and Strait suffered a broken ankle less than two weeks later. All nine blueliners played significant minutes against top forwards at some point during the season.
Although the defensemen were up against each other every day in practice, it didn’t result in any bad blood. Instead, it fostered a bond among teammates.
“There can be animosity between players when you are rotated in and out for each other, but I think this year everyone just knew our D-corps was solid,” Carkner said. “We had great players and we wanted to keep them game ready. When they came in, we did our job and everyone was trying to pump each other up so the team could win.”
Throughout the season, competition among the forwards also grew fierce, as the Islanders gained forwards Josh Bailey and Jesse Joensuu, who both missed the early part of the season with injuries. Visnovsky joined the squad in early February, helping kick-start the team out of a five-game losing skid.
As the season wore on, Head Coach Jack Capuano used a different lineup seemingly every game depending on the matchup. Players shuffled in and out, viewing each game in the lineup as an audition. Perhaps the player who personified that the most was the 24-year-old rookie Hickey; he made his NHL debut in January and finished the season behind only his 36-year-old defense partner Visnovsky with a plus-9 rating in 39 games.
“Hicks and Viz - we always joked around with them that they were the shortest combo in the league, but the way they moved the puck and held possession was great,” said fellow defenseman Andrew MacDonald. “It was fun to watch Hickey and to see his confidence grow throughout the season. I thought Garth did a really good job picking those guys up. Everyone did a really great job and toward the end of the year when we were rolling, they were a huge part of it.”
Despite – or maybe because of – the frequent lineup shifting, the Islanders maintained a strong sense of team chemistry, skating to an 11-2-4 record over the last 17 games. Defensive stalwart Travis Hamonic was impressed by the way young players and veterans alike shuffled in and out of the lineup.
“You look at our back end – we picked up Hickey, Strait and Finley off waivers, and those guys played really well and played in tough situations when we needed them,” Hamonic said. “Even up front, we had a lot of depth. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to change lineups, especially when injuries happen down the stretch, but that’s part of the game. It was a good transition whenever we had people jump in and out of the lineup.”
Many questions regarding personnel need to be answered in the upcoming months preceding Training Camp. The competition will intensify as more prospects are added to the mix to challenge for roster spots, but if this year is any indication, that will only lead to greater team chemistry and ultimately, greater on-ice success.