As the New York Islanders are gearing up for their qualifying round against the Florida Panthers beginning on August 1st, the coming weeks will be crucial for the team to evaluate its current state, find a rhythm within their structured systems and eventually, finalize a 23-man lineup.
All eyes will be on the hopeful return of Adam Pelech and Casey Cizikas. Prior to the NHL's pause on March 12, both of their presences were greatly missed on the blueline and down the middle. Pelech has been recovering since Jan. 2 after undergoing surgery to his Achilles Tendon. Cizikas was placed on IR on Feb. 12 after sustaining a leg laceration.
On Saturday evening, Head Coach Barry Trotz and President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello, fielded questions from reporters via Zoom and shared insight on Pelech and Cizikas.
"I don't get to see them a whole lot if at all," Trotz clarified. "But I did get a peek or two of them when heading to our meeting site -- they seem like they're in really good shape. With Adam's injury and the length of time, he might be in the best shape. He's had to rehab right through the summer and had to be on the ice. Same with Casey in getting back."
While the sample size of evaluating the current state of both Pelech and Cizikas is minimal, Trotz is confident in their roles and the effects they each have among the team.
"I think both of those guys will be just fine," Trotz said. "I don't see any drop off. They're both excited. They really missed the time that they did miss when they had their injuries. I expect that both of them will have a big impact like they usually do."
Prior to Pelech's injury, the 25-year-old defenseman was logging hefty minutes against opposing teams' top lines and alongside his longtime d-partner Ryan Pulock. Pelech had compiled nine points (1G, 8A) through 38 games and was one of the team's top penalty killers and shot blockers.
Prior to his injury, Cizikas centered the Islanders 'Identity Line' alongside Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. When intact, the trio is crucial to creating contagious energy and shutting down the timelines of their opponents.
Cizikas had battled lower-body injuries early on in the season, but still managed to pick up 14 points (10G, 4A) throughout 48 games. The energetic center took an unlucky skate to the leg against Philadelphia on Feb. 11 and was subsequently placed on IR.
The Islanders acquired center forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau from the Ottawa Senators at the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24. With the return of Cizikas, the Islanders will have four strong centers down the middle.
Despite this mini training camp being a near immediate predecessor to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Lamoriello, Trotz and the rest of the coaching staff are taking a fresh approach to the upcoming skates and emphasizing that no spot is currently secure.
"We're going to let it play out, but I think you do have to go in there with a plan," Trotz said. "Somewhat of that plan is based on history, but I think there's going to be an opportunity for some guys who can grab a spot."
While neither Pelech or Cizikas - or any player for that matter - have a guaranteed spot in the lineup come puck drop against the Panthers on Aug. 1, the Islanders are eager to utilize their return of a deep and healthy roster.