Amidst their over-achieving season, the New York Islanders are suddenly faced with a problem most good teams run into at some point during their respective campaigns.
Barry Trotz’s men have been clicking on all cylinders since Dec. 15, winning 16 of their last 21 games to catapult them into first place in the Metropolitan Division.
They’ve done so with the perfect balance of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance as the Islanders are getting key contributions from every corner of the roster.
But the coming days will offer the returns of a pair of injured veterans in defenseman Thomas Hickey and winger Andrew Ladd, which threatens the equilibrium of the Eastern Conference’s second-best team.
Hickey, who has been a mainstay on the blue line playing at least 60 games in each of the last five seasons, has missed the last 19 games with an upper-body injury. In his absence, the Islanders were able to call up top defensive prospect Devon Toews, who has not disappointed throughout his NHL debut.
The 24-year-old has five points in his first 17 games with the same plus-8 rating as Hickey had in almost double the games. He’s shown a tremendous amount of poise since making the jump from the AHL and has seamlessly worked his way into the NHL’s best defense this year.
It’s become abundantly clear that Toews is ready to stay in the NHL, which makes it almost impossible for Trotz to send him back down once Hickey is ready to go. In reality, none of the Islanders’ current six defensemen is worthy of getting the boot from their starting spot.
Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech are the team’s top-two blueliners in plus-minus while Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy are experiencing resurgent seasons. Ryan Pulock, who is just 24, too, leads New York’s defenseman in points with a plus-8 rating of his own.
On offense, Ladd’s prospective return is even more of an issue given the way he’s played over the past year. The two-time Stanley Cup winner has not lived up to his massive seven-year, $38.5 million deal after putting up just 12 goals last season. In 14 games this year, he had just three goals and four assists before going down with a lower-body injury.
If he wasn’t making that kind of money or if the Islanders offense wasn’t in need of a boost, it would be easier for Islanders management to keep him as a 10th forward for the remainder of the season. But Ladd is still capable of scoring around 25 goals should he figure things out, which the Islanders have seemingly done around him.
His presence as a past Stanley Cup winner can also help down the stretch as the Islanders look to not only clinch a playoff spot but make some noise in the postseason. His return though will most likely spell the end for Michael Dal Colle’s time with the big club. The 22-year-old has scored two goals, both game-winners, in 15 games this season on a third line with Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov.
“It will be a tough decision,” Trotz said. “What you want to do, what we’ve done in the organization is create a competition. We feel we have pretty good roles with different guys better at certain things.
“There may be some, call them sacrifices, that you make to get them started, maybe in a back-to-back, or who knows, maybe they’re [sent] down for conditioning — we don’t know, we’re not at that point yet.”