As the Islanders await word of when the upcoming season will begin, a big opportunity has arisen inside the organization.
With the news of Johnny Boychuk’s retirement a week ago, a prime spot is now up for grabs on defense.
This is not the first time the Isles have dealt with trying to replace a key absence on the back end. You have to go back three years for when the Islanders were faced with a similar type of situation.
Back then, the organization was pained with the decision of whom was going to replace d-man Travis Hamonic. Hamonic, who had spent five years with the franchise, was shipped to the Calgary Flames on draft weekend after former g.m. Garth Snow granted his request to be traded to be closer to home for personal reasons.
In training camp that September, it was three youngsters — Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech — who competed with each other for the one open slot.
Mayfield ended up winning the battle out of the trio, but all three became regulars as the season progressed after several key guys on defense got banged up.
Fast forward to now, Pulock is the club’s No. 1 d-man and just re-signed for two more years. Mayfield has evolved into a steady defender with good upside. And Pelech? Well, he has transformed into arguably the most underrated defenseman in the NHL.
So now the Islanders are back in that same spot, only this time they have close to almost five names who could be Boychuk’s replacement — Sebastian Aho, Grant Hutton, Parker Wotherspoon, Mitch Vande Sompel and Thomas Hickey.
Aho heads the top of the list for a reason. For him — who’s actually the only one besides Hickey with any NHL experience (he played 22 games during the 2017-18 season) — this could finally be his time to shine. He has thrived for the Isles’ AHL affiliate the last three seasons, including three All-Star Game appearances.
The 24-year-old Swede was also qualified by the organization back in October with the notion he would be fighting for a spot on the blue line. He’s been patient with waiting to get his chance to prove his worth.
Back in April, he voiced his frustration too about wanting to play for the big club but not having received that opportunity just yet. “It was a little frustrating,” he then told a Swedish news outlet. “In the beginning you are just happy to get to practice with the team every day and see and learn. Then it’s clear, it doesn’t really matter what level you are at – you always want to play matches.”
“It is up to me to try to prove that you should be up in the NHL and that you will take the chance next time it comes. For me, it’s just a matter of continuing to play in the way that has taken me to where I am today. At least they say they have me in their future plans and tell me not to give up. If I do what I’m good at, my chance will come, they say more or less. I can not do more than that.”
Hutton, 25, has made good strides playing in Bridgeport the last two years after turning pro. A lot of critics believe he could be a very good d-man. Wotherspoon and Vande Sompel have been attached at the hip almost throughout their time in the minors. Vande Sompel has had some tough luck staying healthy — he suffered an arm injury in training camp last season which cost him nearly the entire year — but at 22, he’s still young enough to where he should receive a long look. Wotherspoon seems ready to make the jump to the Islanders after another solid season anchoring Bridgeport’s defense.
Then there’s Hickey. Even at 31, has to garner consideration because he’s once again healthy and still under contract until after the 2021-22 season.
You might also be asking yourself, where does Andy Greene fit in all of this?
It’s a good question.
Greene, who supposedly will be back with the organization based on comments from Lou Lamoriello, will probably be suited as the team’s extra d-man. He turned 38 in late October, and with the amount of depth and options the Isles have on D, it’s hard to see him being a regular every night.
The Islanders’ defense was already going to be different this season. What with Devon Toews being traded and Noah Dobson taking his place. But now with Boychuk out of the equation, another huge spot is open with several names ready to fight for it.
They’ve seen this situation in the past and it should be fun to see it take place again.