After starting camp with 62 skaters, the New York Islanders whittled down their roster through intense competition at training camp and unveiled the 23-man lineup Tuesday afternoon.
Technically, 27 players are still vying for the 23 spots, as four Islanders begin the season on the injured reserve (Matt Carkner, Calvin de Haan, Michael Grabner and Lubomir Visnovsky). Even with the injuries, the roster is the deepest it has been in recent memory, with an influx of proven NHLers in all three zones.
“As a group in here, we're pretty excited about the players that [General Manager] Garth Snow has added to our team,” Travis Hamonic said. “He's upgraded all the positions and we have a group in here that we believe can win and now we have to go out and prove it.”
The roster announcement answered some of the most pressing questions surrounding the team during training camp. Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart, the Islanders first-round picks in 2011 and 2012, respectively, both made the Islanders out of camp, two spots which were far from guaranteed due to the team’s newfound depth.
“My play came on a lot during camp and I thought I really turned it up,” Strome said. “They said it would be performance based and I think I played well towards the end. I’m happy to be here. This is where my heart is.”
The acquisitions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy bolstered the Islanders blue line depth, but presented more challenges for Reinhart’s path to the NHL. After making the opening night roster, Reinhart said he’s happy to have two more veteran defensemen around to help his development.
“It’s good for me and puts me back in the depth chart a little bit,” Reinhart said. “I started off a little slower than I would have liked. My practices are going really well. I compete better and I’m picking up the intensity. I’m getting a little quicker practicing with these guys.”
Strome and Reinhart are the two youngest players on the opening night roster and are both looking stick around and make an impact with the team. However, they know, as do the rest of the Islanders, that the organizational depth means the only way to stay on the roster is to produce. Strome said he doesn’t think the competition for jobs is over, with top-end talent like Anders Lee, who scored nine goals in 22 games for the Islanders last season, working hard in Bridgeport.
Head Coach Jack Capuano acknowledged loaning Lee to the Sound Tigers was one of the toughest decisions he and the coaching staff had to make based on his performance last year and in camp.
“It's disappointing anytime you have to let a player like that go,” Capuano said of Lee. “Just because he's down there now doesn't mean the opportunity won't present itself somewhere in the near future.”
Ryan Pulock was also loaned to the Sound Tigers. Capuano said an injury derailed a very good camp for the 2013 first-round pick.
The other main storyline through camp was who was going to fill the vacancy alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo on the top line. As of Wednesday, Cory Conacher looks to be the choice in on Tavares’ left wing for opening night.
“It’s pretty special,” Conacher said. “I just have to try to take advantage of this opportunity. I don’t want to get away from playing my game, but at the same time I want to make sure those guys are comfortable playing with me on a line.”
“I’m going to try to create a lot of room for them in the offensive zone. The more room Kyle and Johnny have in the offensive zone, the more effective our line is going to be. If that means I have to be around the net, being in the corners and retrieving loose pucks, I’m going to do that. At the same time, I’m going to play my game, get pucks on net and not pass up opportunities.”
Conacher played with Tavares and Okposo on Sept. 30 in Boston, scoring a goal in the 5-3 preseason win. The Burlington, ON, native impressed the coaching staff with his tenacity, but he too will have to produce to stay on Tavares’ wing.
“You're here for a reason, but you have to sustain it,” Capuano said. “We'll see what he can do Friday night. He's going to get an opportunity and we've practiced that line all week, and to me, I think that's what we'll go with to start. If we have to make tweaks, we'll make tweaks."
With depth at forward, defense and in net, Capuano and Snow have created a competitive environment, meaning that the top 23 players will be in the lineup for the Islanders night in and night out. Internal competition should make life difficult for the opposing teams.
“It's been a great camp,” Capuano said. “The guys have a great attitude, they have a little swagger in the room, they have a little attitude to them, all the things that they need to be successful. This is a great opportunity for us to pull together as a team and prove a lot of people wrong. I'm looking forward to it."
The season begins Friday at 7:00 p.m. in Raleigh.