A look at a trio of nominal Islanders rookies entering training camp
When it comes to the New York Islanders, the focus of fans and national observers alike is squarely trained on the #91 of John Tavares, and with good reason. But past the gaze of casual eyes, there’s a small but significant youth revolution happening on Long Island.
There’s plenty of reason to be nervous about the Islanders this year. The team is coming off a season where they missed the playoffs, while trying to resign their franchise centerman and centerpiece, and dealing with the depletion of defensive stalwart and fan favorite Travis Hamonic. But there’s some reason for hope as well.
While Jordan Eberle may have been the only significant acquisition from outside the franchise, the Islanders could also be getting a boost from three in-house additions this year. Matthew Barzal, Josh-Ho Sang and Ryan Pulock each figure to factor heavily into the big league club’s depth chart this year. Will one of them take home the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie?
With no Auston Matthews or Patrick looming as the obvious preseason favorites, there’s a a fair chance that one of the Islanders’ three older rookies (each of whom saw at least a few shifts of NHL action last year, but not the 25 games needed to be ineligible for the rookie award) could steal the Calder in a draft year highlighted by a debate between #1 and #2 overall picks Nico Hershiser and Nolan Patrick.
With that in mind, let’s look at the chances of each of the team’s youngest additions, and why they might (and might not) have a new item for their trophy case come this offseason.
20-years-old, 10 goals, 69 assists in 41 games for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds in 2016-2017
Why he’ll win it: As it stands now, Barzal’s rookie career is fairly lackluster. The Coquitlam, BC centerman started the season with then-coach Jack Capuano’s big league squad, but failed to impress in two games, not registering a point.
And sure, his lone memorable moment in the blue-and-orange last year was his back-to-back penalties, which surely earned him a Not Top 10 mention in Canada, and also seemed to earn him a ticket back to juniors from Cappy. But this is a new season, and perhaps more importantly, there’s a new coach in Doug Weight, who seems more likely to give young players a leash.
The Islanders have reportedly refused to include Barzal in any of the Duchene proposals or other deals because they believe he could be the next big thing. He has no shortage of playmaking talent, and Barzal also helped guide the Thunderbirds to a WHL title with 7 goals and 18 assists in 25 playoff games as the Playoff MVP, so he’s not afraid of a big moment.
The Islanders clearly have high expectations for Barzal, and the fans want to see that this young kid was worth holding back on Duchene or another all-star. Can this be the year he starts to deliver?
Why he won’t: Remember what we said about his introduction to the NHL last year? Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
And, Barzal, like some other Islanders rookies have before him, may not benefit from his spot in the lineup in the way a player like Artemi Panarin did in his Calder-winning campaign. Panarin got to ride along with Patrick Kane, but with Eberle riding shotgun on Tavares’ right wing, there’s a good chance Barzal will either be centering or playing wing on a line with at least one other rookie. Any veteran presence will likely come from perhaps past-their-peak players like Jason Chimera or Andrew Ladd.
Hell, there’s a good chance Barzal still isn’t ready for primetime at the start of the season, and spends time in Bridgeport or as an extra forward in the press box. Time spent there generally isn’t part of award-voters’ preferred resumes.
All of this doesn’t mean the Islanders can’t build a line based on speed and youth that breeds an award winner, or that Barzal can’t have an impact on a line with aging veterans. But it also doesn’t help his chances.
21-years-old, 10 A and 26 A in 50 games for the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers and 4 G and 6 A in 21 games for the Islanders in 2016-2017
Why he’ll win it: Ho-Sang made his debut to much fanfare and criticsm for his number and general persona late last year, but can the philosophical forward silence the critics with a Calder win?
Ho-Sang probably has the best chance of any Islander rookie, at least on paper, as we enter training camp. He gained valuable experience during the stretch run last year, and showed flashes of brilliance. As Eyes on Isles’ Michael Anderson outlined in his look at Ho-Sang’s award chances, he’s capable of highlight reel plays, and with some time served already, he knows what it takes to score in the NHL, even when the season reaches its most tense.
His 10 points in 21 games last year at the highest level have him projected to score about 40 points, give or take a few, through the course of the season. But fans and the team alike are undoubtedly hoping, even expecting, something closer to 60 points this year, and it will likely take at least that to take home the hardware.
But Ho-Sang will have a full-training camp under his belt, and at 21-years-old, has plenty of room to improve. He’s got the sound bites Twitter account to be a star in New York, and a Calder Trophy in his case would go a long way in advancing that cause.
Why he won’t: Like Barzal, you have to wonder about who Ho-Sang will play with, and whether that will help or hurt his production.
Last year, he spent most of his time in the NHL playing with fellow youngster Anthony Beauvillier and 30-goal-scorer Anders Lee, which would be an interesting line to start next season. But Lee will likely lineup with Tavares more times than not, and Barzal and Beau are both nominally centers. It seems more likely he’ll fit in with his second most common skating partners, Andrew Ladd and Brock Nelson.
Those are two players that score plenty of goals, but as Islanders fans will attest, can be mighty frustrating for stretches of time. If Ho-Sang stabilizes their production, his chances will soar, but if the three can’t gel, it could be ugly quickly.
He’ll also have quite the target on his back, and plenty of cameras in his face, thanks in large part to that number he wears and the statements he makes. If he gets off to a slow start, the league will no doubt be talking about it, despite the Islanders’ usual low profile.
He’s the Islanders best chance for the award, but he’s far from a lock.
22-years-old, 15 G and 31 A in 55 games for the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2016-2017
Why he’ll win it: While playing time and line mates are a concern for Barzal and Ho-Sang, that doesn’t sound like that will be the case for the defenseman.
Already in his preseason media sessions, Weight said plans to feature Pulock as an offensive blueliner and a “weapon” on the powerplay. Those heavy minor league point totals, which even outpace Ho-Sang despite the forward’s roughly equal service time, are a result of a powerful slap-shot which fans got a taste of during his few big-league appearances over the past two season, and the new coach wants the shot to boost the Islanders’ powerplay.
The last defenseman to win the award was the Florida Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad in the 2014-2015 season, who scored 12 goals and 27 assists to do so. So, if Pulock wants to add to his trophy case, he’ll need to hit the 40-point mark.
He scored just over than that in 55 games last year, though it was against a lesser breed of competition. Will 82 games at the next level be enough for him to get back to 46 points? If he can actually stay healthy the length of the season, its far from an impossibility.
Why he won’t: “Free Pulock!” became a common refrain on #IslesTwitter last season, and its easy to chalk up his nearly full season without a major-league call-up on bad decision making from a since-dismissed head coach. But there could be a reason Pulock wasn’t NHL ready, and that could show itself over the course of a season.
Pulock is, in many ways, going to be asked to fill the hole of the departed Travis Hamonic. And while Pulock certainly seems to have the better offensive arsenal, Hamonic earned a reputation as a stout and efficient backend piece during his career with the Islanders.
If the goal scoring isn’t there and Pulock is weaker than his predecessor when it comes to shot suppression, the Islanders and their fans could be in for a long season. And if that’s the case, Pulock certainly won’t be a Calder candidate.
Brendan Murray is a blogger and a very nervous Islander fan. Find him on Twitter @MurraySportTalk