"Center" of Debate
It certainly isn't news to anyone that the Islanders have quite a few issues to address during the off season. In fact, it is a recurring theme year in and year out as the Islanders have yet to be able to establish themselves as perennial contenders. With the exception of the 2012-2013 shortened season, they often aren't even challenging for a playoff berth let alone contending and the spot at which they draft each year is proof of that. Garth Snow will be a busy man starting at the draft on June 27th right up until opening night in October (and he needs to be if he has any intention of keeping his job). Acquiring 2 goaltenders and at least 1 legitimate defenseman are top priorities among other things, but one thing the Islanders are fortunate enough to not have to worry about is their depth/surplus down the middle.
As it stands right now, the Islanders have 6 natural centers on the roster in Josh Bailey, Casey Cizikas, Brock Nelson, Frans Nielsen, Ryan Strome and John Tavares. For the sake of this article, I will leave Bailey out of the debate because of his lack of production, the fact he has been mainly playing wing for the better part of 2 years and the fact he very well could be a trade chip in the Isles pursuit of a goalie or defenseman.
Assuming Bailey is still on the team come October, he will all but certainly be on the wing barring some disaster in which case the Isles will have more problems than I'd like to even think about. That leaves 5 players for 4 spots, so here are some thoughts on the 5 players and my assumption of their role and placement in the lineup this coming year.
The Locks at Center
John Tavares- Tavares is the undisputed #1 center. No questions. None what so ever. In fact, I would guarantee that he would be the #1 center on any team in the NHL other than Pittsburgh because of Sidney Crosby and maybe Chicago and Anaheim with Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlaf respectively. Johnny Hockey brings it all. He has leadership skills both in the locker room and on the ice. He is an elite scorer and playmaker and is one of the top 5 best players in the league. His elite level of talent has him as a lock for the team's first line.
Frans Nielsen- The only real debate with Nielsen will be whether he will be the 2nd or 3rd line center. Nielsen is somehow still one of the most underrated players in the league and continually gets better every year. This past season, Nielsen had a career year in which he accumulated 25 goals and 33 assists for 58 points in 80 games played. His -11 rating jumps out at you on his stat line, but when you take into consideration the Isles overall record and the fact that he is a 1st unit penalty killer, that number is a bit skewed and does not reflect his value to the team. Nielsen contributed 2 shorthanded goals and was yet again the Isles anchor during the shootout. Frans finished the year as the NHL's second best shootout performer with 8 goals on 15 attempts equaling a 53.3% scoring rate. Only TJ Oshie of the St. Louis Blues had a better ratio, scoring 75% of the time with 9 goals on 12 attempts. I personally feel that Nielsen should remain the 2nd line center and if he is to drop down, make one of kids out perform him.
Casey Cizikas- Assuming he is back next season, Cizikas will and should be the 4th line center. His faceoff ability has the potential to have a similar effect to what Yanic Perreault brought during his NHL tenure if he can get some consistency. Additionally, he is key on the 2nd penalty killing unit, he blocks a ton of shots and he gives the Isles a ton of energy. Cizikas is the embodiment of a 4th line center, he just needs to bring back the effectiveness that he had 2 years ago.
The Toss Ups
Brock Nelson- Nelson's rookie year was a huge success and he was one of the few bright sports for the Isles this year. At 6'3" and just under 200lbs, Nelson played the role of power forward and did it well. In addition, his hands are uncharacteristic of a player with his build and he displayed just as much pure skill as he did grit. His 14 goals, 12 assists and 26 points were good for 6th best on the team. Although he is a natural center, Nelson spent a lot of time on the wing including a stint on the first line with John Tavares when Thomas Vanek missed a few games with a short term injury. There is no question Nelson can not only play, but play well whether it be on wing or at center. My gut tells me he will stay on the wing next year which is a good thing because it will result in more minutes on one of the top two lines.
Ryan Strome- Strome is a crafty player that will very soon be a difference maker in the NHL. He isn't quit at the level of Tavares, but he is very, very good. His hands are just as good as any and his production really started to become evident toward the end of the year when it was clear he was getting more comfortable. All Strome really needs to do is bulk up a bit and get used to the NHL pace as he was a man amongst boys in Juniors and even the AHL in his short time there. I feel he should and will be the 3rd line center. It will give him a chance to get more acclimated and as we saw toward the end of the year, his presence inbetween Matt Martin and Colin McDonald injected some life into their otherwise poor year in terms of production. My guess is that he will be the one to take Nielsen's spot on the 2nd line when he does eventually mature.
In summation, there are a lot of areas that this team needs to improve in, and Garth certainly has his work cut out for him this summer, but down the middle the Isles are good for years to come.