It was a somber day at Islanders Iceworks, as the team contemplated life without captain John Tavares.
The Islanders announced Thursday morning that Tavares sustained an MCL and meniscus tear in his left knee during Wednesday’s Olympic quarterfinal between Canada and Latvia. He will miss the remainder of the regular season.
“You feel bad for him, especially how much he was looking forward to it before the Olympics and coming back to help us make our playoff push,” Tavares’ teammate and roommate Colin McDonald said. “At this point, it’s set in and you just want him to get healthy and be ready for next year.”
Tavares will remain in Sochi through the end of the Olympics and will be reevaluated upon returning to Long Island. With the league’s third-leading scorer sidelined for the rest of the season, and their second-line center, Frans Nielsen, out with a broken thumb, head coach Jack Capuano will have to restructure his lines accordingly.
Third-line center Brock Nelson skated on the team’s top line at Wednesday and Thursday’s practices. He also filled in for Tavares during a one-game absence on Dec. 28 indicating he may be Capuano’s choice to center the top line for the final 22 games. Nelson’s offensive output and assertiveness have increased during his rookie campaign and his 10 goals rank fifth on the team.
“I’m just taking it one day at a time right now,” Nelson said. “I just have to keep trying to get better, prepare the same way and keep working on my game. If I’m called upon to play a couple more minutes, I need to be ready.”
You can’t replace a guy like him, but everyone has an opportunity to pick up the slack. Hopefully guys are looking forward to it. - Colin McDonald
Tavares led all Islanders forwards in ice time, averaging 21:14 a game, eight more minutes than Nelson’s season average of 13:09.
If Nelson does slot into the top of the depth chart, he won’t shoulder the responsibility of filling in for Tavares alone. The leadership core said everyone in the tight-knit group has to pick up the slack for the final 22 games.
“There are going to be some guys who will play a lot more,” Assistant Captain Kyle Okposo said. “Hopefully guys take advantage of that and we come together as a team because obviously he’s a big part. Other guys have to step up, including myself. Life goes on. We have to play these 22 games and we have some work left to do.”
Tavares and Nielsen’s inuries may make room for other players to join the Islanders roster – presumably from Bridgeport – though Capuano said no personnel decisions have been made. Ryan Strome earned a callup to the Islanders in December, but was sent down on Jan. 15 to play during the Olympic break, and could be back with the Isles after the roster freeze ends on Sunday night. Since returning to Bridgeport, Strome has 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 11 games.
|Kyle Okposo said he and the rest of the team have to step up in the final 22 games of the season. |
Another possibility at center is Johan Sundstrom, the Islanders second-round pick in 2011. At 6’3”, 200 lbs. Sundstrom brings a big body, net presence and is defensively-responsible. Calvin de Haan, who played with Sundstrom in Bridgeport, said his game is similar to Nielsen. Sundstrom has 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 30 games this season.
“He’s a responsible two-way guy,” de Haan said. “He’s reliable at both ends of the ice, he’s great defensively. Someone like that… can really help a team and you can never have too many guys like that.”
Anders Lee is another candidate for a promotion, who leads the Sound Tigers with 19 goals in his rookie season. Lee is currently second in team scoring with 38 points.
While Tavares’ on-ice production will be missed, so will his presence in the Islanders locker room. The first-year captain brings a calm, but confident leadership style to the Isles. In his absence, the team is counting on contributions from everyone.
“Everyone has to step up,” McDonald said. “You can’t replace a guy like him, but everyone has an opportunity to pick up the slack. Hopefully guys are looking forward to it… We really need everyone to play their best at this point to help us make a push.”