Life without John Tavares begins for the New York Islanders on Thursday when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first game for both teams following the Olympic break. New York has lost six straight games at Nassau Coliseum, while Toronto has won two straight and 11 of 14.
The Islanders may soon be looking at life without forward Thomas Vanek and defenseman Andrew MacDonald. Each player is rumored to be headed elsewhere by the NHL Trade Deadline on March 5 at 3 p.m.
"Is it in the back of your mind? I'm sure it is. If [I said it wasn't] I'd be lying," Vanek told reporters. "I know what's ahead and what could happen, but once you come to the rink you block it out."
Islanders coach Jack Capuano has no intention on sitting Vanek to protect him from injury.
"We need to go about our business," Capuano said.
Even before Tavares, third in the NHL with 66 points (24 goals, 42 assists), tore the MCL and meniscus in his left knee while playing for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the Islanders' playoff prospects were dim. New York (22-30-8) is last in the Metropolitan Division with the third-fewest points in the Eastern Conference (52), and has dropped two straight games and seven of eight.
"I'm looking to get work ethic, commitment, focus and desperation in their game," Capuano said. "We've had some good meetings over the last few days. I talked to the guys about having a singular focus, meaning shift-by-shift, period-by-period. We can't look ahead; we have to focus on the task at hand."
Injuries to Tavares, center Frans Nielsen (broken hand) and forward Matt Martin (lower body) led to the Islanders calling up forwards Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Mike Halmo from Bridgeport of the American Hockey League.
"Those guys are obviously getting a great opportunity … and will probably play more minutes than they would otherwise with the injuries that we have," Capuano said. "I expect they'll work hard and they'll be excited, but I just want them to play poised and composed."
Though Tavares is considered irreplaceable, the Islanders are looking at Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and the new kids to slap life into an offense that was held to one or two goals in five straight games before the break. Okposo's 59 points (24 goals, 35 assists) are eighth in the League and Grabner's five goals tied Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel for the Olympic lead.
Nielsen, on IR retroactive to Feb. 8, skated Thursday morning. Capuano said he and Martin could potentially return this weekend.
Toronto's offense is powered by Kessel, fourth in scoring (31 goals, 65 points), and James van Riemsdyk, who has set career highs with 24 goals and 23 assists. Van Riemsdyk took a puck to the throat during the Olympics, but skated Thursday morning and is expected to play. Center Dave Bolland (left ankle surgery), out since Nov. 2, also skated but is doubtful. Center Trevor Smith is recovered from a broken hand and could see action Thursday night.
Evgeni Nabokov will start in goal for New York. Jonathan Bernier, a winner of five of his past six starts, goes for Toronto.
Here are the projected lineups for the Islanders and Maple Leafs:
Thomas Vanek – Brock Nelson – Kyle Okposo
Michael Grabner – Josh Bailey – Cal Clutterbuck
Anders Lee – Ryan Strome – Colin McDonald
Eric Boulton – Casey Cizikas – Mike Halmo
Calvin de Haan – Travis Hamonic
Thomas Hickey – Lubomir Visnovsky
Brian Strait – Andrew MacDonald
Scratched: Matt Carkner
Injured: John Tavares (knee), Frans Nielsen (broken hand), Matt Martin (lower body)
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Phil Kessel
Joffrey Lupul – Nazem Kadri – David Clarkson
Troy Bodie – Nikolai Kulemin – Mason Raymond
Frazer McLaren – Jay McClement – Trevor Smith
Carl Gunnarsson – Dion Phaneuf
Cody Franson – Jake Gardiner
Tim Gleason – Morgan Rielly
Scratched: Colton Orr, Paul Ranger
Injured: Carter Ashton (hand), Dave Bolland (left ankle surgery), Peter Holland (feet/ankles), Jay McClement (upper body)