Prior to the start of the season, much was written about the New York Islanders and the many changes they’d made to their roster.
Looking back, hopes were understandably high that the additions of goalie Jaroslav Halak, forwards Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, and Cory Conacher, plus Stanley Cup-winning defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy could turn a team that already had a superstar in John Tavares into a contender in the Eastern Conference.
But you know what way less was written about? The potential of youngsters Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome to make as big an impact as they’ve made.
As much as anything else, it’s the contributions from Nelson, 23, and Strome, 21, that have given the Isles the chance they’ve got tonight, which is to take over first place in the Metropolitan Division from Pittsburgh. (The two teams are currently tied with 28 points. The Isles host Philly; the Pens are in Boston.)
In a way, what Nelson and Strome have done this season is reminiscent of the boost that Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson gave the Kings in the 2014 playoffs. Remember that, prior to last season, the jury was still out on those two young L.A. forwards. Each had shown they could produce in the AHL; the question was, could they do it at the NHL level? They sure did in the postseason, centered by veteran Jeff Carter. At times, they were the Kings’ best line.
The combined cap hit of Toffoli and Pearson? A mere $1.795 million.
The combined cap hit of Nelson and Strome? Just a hair over $1.76 million. (Not including bonuses, but still.)
This is what the best teams in the NHL have in the cap age — at least one or two young players on cheap contracts who are making significant contributions. Think Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw in Chicago in 2013, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin in L.A. the year before that, and Boston’s Brad Marchand the year before that.
That’s not to say the Isles are going to win the Stanley Cup, but when a team’s two youngest players on the active roster are in the top four in club scoring, good times are quite often ahead.