Okposo's Return Imminent; Isles Face "Forward" Questions

If the only good news the Islanders received Thursday night was that they picked up another big two points in Nashville, it would have been a good enough day.  But the night was made a little sweeter when it was reported that forward Kyle Okposo would be joining the team in Florida for its Saturday night game against the Panthers.  It is unlikely Okposo will suit up, but the idea of number 21 back in the lineup is enough to excite the Islander fans who were stunned to see him go down with injury over the All-Star Break.

It was confirmed that he suffered a detached retina which would sideline him for 6 to 8 weeks.  Assuming Okposo plays this week, he would have fallen right into that 6 to 8 week projection and missed anywhere between 20 and 23 games.  It should also quell any fears of people who assumed the worst-case scenario of an Islander team without Okposo’s services for the remainder of the season.

Fortunately the team has not fallen apart without Okposo in the lineup, going 11-7-2 so far since his injury.  They have not looked as strong as they did with him in the lineup which shouldn’t come as a shock for a team that lost its second best forward for such a long period.  The team kept afloat and maintained possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division, but no doubt this team could use the strong two-way play of Okposo in its lineup.

The other bit of good news from this injury is the emergence of Anders Lee on the top line with John Tavares and Josh Bailey.  Lee has scored 9 of his 22 goals in the last 17 games since he was moved to the top line before the team’s February 3rd game against Florida.  He’s also racked up 8 assists during that period, helping him set a point-per-game pace on the top line.  Undoubtedly he has benefitted from riding shotgun to Tavares (let’s be real, who wouldn’t?) and despite the team’s struggles, the top line has been fairly consistent throughout it all.

Which begs the question: what does the coaching staff do with his forward lines now when Okposo returns?  Most assume that Okposo will reclaim his spot on the top line next to Tavares.  His 44 points in 46 games should not be overlooked as he has displayed great chemistry with Tavares over the past two seasons.  If you simply replaced with Josh Bailey or Lee with Okposo and moved everyone down a peg, there probably wouldn’t be too many arguments from fans initially.

But, can Jack Capuano afford to break up his top line of Tavares, Lee, and Bailey now?  They put forth a dominant effort Thursday night in Nashville, combining for two goals, two assists, and eight shots on goal, plus a handful of truly dominant offensive-zone shifts.  Tavares has been on a recent tear (19 points in his last 17 games), Bailey has displayed enough offensive competency to no longer be labeled a “black hole” and it seems Lee scores every night.  While you hate to have a guy lose his spot because of injury, why break up a good thing now?

Instead it makes sense to move Okposo on a line centered by Ryan Strome.  Strome is having a strong first full season (14 goals, 28 assists, +22 rating) and similar to Tavares, can carry the puck into the offensive zone with speed.  On the other wing the team should utilize Brock Nelson, who's recent play has improved after a prolonged slump.  You have the playmaker (Strome), shooter/play along the boards (Okposo), and net-front presence (Nelson).  It’s a trio that should be able to add significant offense especially with the opposition needing to focus so heavily on the top Tavares line.

The line also should provide consistency to the top-six forward group.  Due to injuries and inconsistent play recently, it seems that the lines outside the top unit have been a jumbled mess these past few weeks. At times it looks like Capuano is just pulling names out of a hat to determine who goes on the ice next.

As the playoffs approach and the possibility of all the forwards being completely healthy (yes, maybe even Mikhail Grabovski too), the team is facing the hard question of “who needs to sit?” with 14 forwards for 12 spots (and that’s assuming Colin McDonald is not with the big club).  If the top two lines are set, and a third unit consisting of Frans Nielsen and Nikolai Kulemin paired together as a shut-down duo, there will be six forwards for four spots. 

Will newly acquired Tyler Kennedy force his way into the lineup with his playoff experience?  Will Michael Grabner’s speed be too much of a weapon to waste away in the press box?  Do Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck get automatic starts because their previous success?  And with offense at a premium come playoff time, is Grabovski’s offensive skill set enough to warrant ice time?  Good questions to have…tough questions to answer.

But that’s a conversation for six weeks from now when the playoffs begin.  No one will be shocked if there are more injuries to the group (in fact, the safe money is there will be) and the depth questions shake themselves out organically.  And if everyone is healthy?  Well, I don’t remember anyone ever saying they lost a playoff series because they had too much depth (whether the coach will use it correctly is a much different, much more terrifying question).

For now though, Kyle Okposo’s imminent return this week will be a huge boost for a club that chose not to add any big-ticket items at the trade deadline, unwilling to pay the huge prices when they had an impact player set to return on the horizon.  It will be a glorious sight to see number 21 chugging down the wing in the blue and orange, hopefully helping this team re-capture the magic it displayed earlier in the season.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and follow @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis.