With Clutterbuck Out, Another Opening for Prospects

Kevin Schultz, Islanders Point Blank:

Over the last few weeks we’ve been over the chances Islanders prospects have of making the team out of training camp and as long as the Islanders don’t cut some of the lower-level NHLers — Eric Boulton and Joe Finley, for instance — it appears that there’s only one spot open for a fresh face.

You’ve got 13 skaters (Tavares, Moulson, Bouchard, Bailey, Nielsen, Okposo, Regin, Grabner, Clutterbuck, Cizikas, Martin, McDonald and Boulton) along with seven defenders and two goalies (Visnovsky, Hamonic, MacDonald, Strait, Hickey, Carkner, Finley, Poulin/Nilsson and Nabokov).

With 22 players at the NHL level, that really leaves one spot open on a 23-man roster. Whether the Islanders decide to go with an eighth defender or a 14th forward is anyone’s guess at this point. But now that it appears Cal Clutterbuck could miss some time — an extended amount, the definition of which is really up to personal interpretation — there appears to be a second spot open. So who gets it? Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson or other?

For my money, this makes it an easier decision for the team. Now, instead of having to decide between the extra defender or extra forward, they can take one of each. Matt Donovan has been the front runner on defense, and was paired with Andrew MacDonald against the Flames on Tuesday, so he’s got the inside track on the blueline, but Calvin de Haan is also a possibility as well as Radek Martinek.

At forward, things are really up in the air.

The Islanders clearly like Brock Nelson, who produced 52 points in 66 AHL games last year and then made his NHL debut in Game Six. He seems like a perfect fit for the third line center role, a line that now has an opening on it thanks to Clutterbuck. But don’t pigeonhole Nelson into playing center; he can fit at center or he can fit on the wing.

Nelson played wing for a large portion of his tenure in North Dakota and, in fact, the Islanders put him on wing in Game Six (small sample, yes, but given the importance of the situation, they’re clearly not afraid of the possibility). Nelson has been centering a line with Anders Lee and Ryan Strome on the wings in camp, so really like any good center Nelson is able to play different spots. While wingers aren’t always adept at making the transition to center, most centers are versatile enough to be moved around (see also: Josh Bailey) and Nelson is one who appears able to do it. Hockey Prospectus’ Corey Pronman, concurs, saying Nelson is a “do-it-all forward who can play center or wing.”

Strome, Nelson’s linemate, is another center finding a different role. He’s been on the wing for training camp as well as his brief stint in Bridgeport at the end of last season. Strome is easily the higher-end talent and absolutely lit up the CHL his last season up there, and we’ve already gone over how players in his position make the team out of training camp 92% of the time so there’s quite a case to be made for him.

The development of both of these players also speaks to another interesting point; the Islanders seem to be going away from winger in their drafting strategy. They didn’t select a winger in either of the last two drafts and have only selected three since 2009 (one of which is in Minnesota currently).

Wheter the Islanders select Strome or Nelson may come down to whom the Islanders deem as the better player, or how they want to bring along a particular player. Maybe the team wants to bring the higher profile Strome slower, or favor Nelson since he’s already had a year to become acclimated to the pro-game. Another player could step up, too. Kirill Kabanov is coming off an injury and unlikely to make it, but is a possibility. Johan Sundstrom and John Persson are both coming off full seasons in Bridgeport as well. We’ll have to see how it all shakes out, but for my money there are about four players in the running for two spots.