Survivor, Isles Edition; Who Makes the Opening Night Roster?

With training camp starting in a few days, the Islanders finally have solid competition up and down their roster. New additions on offense, an influx of youth on defense and two new goaltenders means there will be battles everywhere in camp from start to finish. As fans this is what we have been waiting for. The camp roster hasn't been this deep in years and the competition will only make for a better product when the puck finally drops in Raleigh on October 10th. 

What this depth means is that there are a group of players with NHL experience that will ultimately have to start the year in the AHL. While their ultimate goal is to be in the NHL permanently, elevated ice time with Bridgeport will keep them fresh and give this team something they have been lacking for a while, depth. 

As I move back to my role of primarily covering the Sound Tigers for you folks, lets take a look at the players at each position that will be given a shot to make the NHL but could just as likely start the year in Bridgeport.

Forwards

Cory Conacher- Conacher came up through what has been an extremely productive and efficient Tampa Bay Lightning system over the last few years. He made his debut in the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season and played well along side Steven Stamkos. His name was being mentioned in the Calder Trophy talk that ultimately went to Jonathan Huberdeau. At the end of that season, he was dealt to the Ottawa Senators for goaltender Ben Bishop. 

Upon his arrival in Ottawa and trickeling into last season, he never really was able to carve out a niche with the Senators and ended up being traded again, this time to the Buffalo Sabres where he once again didn't stand out. Conacher is a great depth signing and it is my belief that he will start the season with the Islanders. Conacher will be hungry rejouvinate his career like so many have been able to do with the Islanders in the recent past. His size hampers him a bit but his speed and scoring ability can make up for what he lacks in personal altitude. 

Anders Lee- Lee had a phenomenal year with the Islanders and Sound Tigers last season. After posting 41 points in 54 games with Bridgeport, Lee was called up to the Island where he contributed 9 goals and 5 assists in 22 games. Lee has the size and net presence that make him an asset down low in the zone. His goals often seem very Matt Moulson-esque as he is developing quite nicely. His skating ability is something that does need to improve along with his defensive zone play. His numbers were good enough to make the argument that he should be in the NHL but he simply may start as a victim of the depth the Islanders now have. Starting the year in Bridgeport wouldn't be the worst thing for Lee as top line minutes will only help him in the long run.

Jack Skille- The former 1st round pick (7th overall to Chicago in 2005) has been a guy that each year his club has been hoping that "this is the year". The highly skilled forward (no pun intended) out of the University of Wisconsin has the talent to be a productive NHL forward but has seen his time with Chicago and Florida relegated to 4th line minutes. Last season with Columbus, it was much of the same for Skille going back and fourth from the AHL and NHL until their playoff matchup with Pittsburgh where he got time on the first line. Skille will be looking to finally make that jump to the NHL full time but much like Lee, the depth alone may have him relegated to the AHL at least to start the season, but if Skille can reach even 60% of his potential, he will be a very useful player to have on this roster.

Harry Zolnierczyk- The former Flyer and Penguin will undoubtedly spend the majority of, if not the entire season in Bridgeport but he has all the makings of a useful bottom 6 forward. Proficient on the penalty kill and at shot blocking, Zolnierczyk could potentially be a guy that comes up big for the Islanders. In the event of an injury a special teams guy like this is a great thing to have, not to mention Zolnierczyk isn't a guy that is afraid to throw the body around. 

Defense

TJ Brennan- With only 40 NHL games to his resume, Brennan had a ridiculous year in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies last season. Brennan amassed 25 goals and 47 assists for 72 points earning himself the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's top defenseman. With an obvious knack for the net, Brennan will be a good asset not only at even strength but on the power play as well. Given the fact that Brennan signed a one way contract with the Islanders on July 1st, it is all but guaranteed that he will be an Islander on opening night but there is still the off chance that with a bad showing at camp that he could find himself with the Sound Tigers.

Kevin Czuczman- The Church was solid with the Islanders after finishing his final season at Lake Superior State. He was reliable and I did not hear his name that often during broadcasts which means that although the young defenseman wasn't sticking out, he also wasn't making any glaring Andrew MacDonald type mistakes game in and game out. Czuczman has the potential to be a very reliable defenseman in the NHL one day but with the elevated competition at camp this year, I think it would go a long way for his development to spend the season getting acclimated to the professional game in Bridgeport.

Matt Donovan- After a dissappointing rookie season it seems that a lot of people, including myself are unsure what to make of Donovan. To be fair, it was a small sample size but given his production when he was in the AHL it is safe to assume that Donovan will have a short leash. At this point Donovan may actually be at the peak of his trade value and given that Reinhart and Pulock are waiting in the wings and there is still a glaring need to add a veteran defenseman. To be honest I don't think testing his trade value would be a bad thing especially if it would help in moving Josh Bailey. Through the ups and downs we saw that Donovan has the ability to contribute, he just may not have very much time to do so. 

Ville Pokka- Much has been said of Pokka and what he could bring to the team after he signed an entry level contract with the Islanders this summer. The 20 year old has been playing professionally in Finland for Karpat the past two seasons and won the league championship this past year. Pokka has a heavy shot and contributed a healthy amount of offense for Finland in the past 2 World Junior Championships. During rookie camp it was reported by some that Pokka looked a bit out of place with the North American game and could use some time in Bridgeport to make the necessary adjustments. With that being said it is rumored via Pokka's agent that if he were not to make the Islanders out of camp he would return to Finland, which I do not think would be much of a help to him. There is still a lot to be learned when it comes to the tall Finnish blueliner, but if he does end up in North America this season it will be with Bridgeport. 

Ryan Pulock- Coming out of his final year in Juniors with the Brandon Wheat Kings, Pulock is pretty much a lock to be spending the year developing in Bridgeport. The 2013 15th overall draft pick will have the opportunitunity to impress the Isles coaching staff but he will in no way be rushed into the NHL. Speaking of heavy shots, Pulocks' may be the hardest in the entire organization right now. As a puck mover and power play anchor in Brandon, Pulock will be a nice compliment in another year or two to the stay at home, physical style that we will likely see out of Griffin Reinhart this year.

Griffin Reinhart- It seems odd to say this about an impending rookie, but a spot on the Islanders openiong day roster is Reinhart's to lose. He has spent the past two years developing with the Edmonton Oil Kings as the Islanders were in no rush to get him into the NHL. In this past season with Edmonton, Reinhart captained the Oil Kings to a Memorial Cup victory as the top team in the CHL. Reinhart has the skill and size to be in the NHL this year and if he does not make the team it will be due to injury or an abysmal camp. He is going to be a key to the Islanders defensive corps for a long time going forward.

*- Goaltenders David Leggio and Kevin Poulin are left off of this list because although both could make serviceable NHL backups with the Islanders, the NHL jobs belong to Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson until there is an injury or meltdown.

**- Although forwards John Persson, Johan Sundstrom, Mike Halmo and defensemen Scott Mayfield & Aaron Ness have NHL experience, I don't see them having a legitimate shot at making the NHL out of camp. However, that does not mean they can't be depth call ups at some point during the season.

There you have it. Stiff competition for NHL spots means the trickle down effect will result in stiff competition for top tier playing time in Bridgeport. There is a lot to look forward to as an Islanders fan. 35 days until opening night in Raleigh!!!

Bryan Curran
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