The NHL season is now underway and yet the well-documented roster crunches of the New York Islanders and Seattle Kraken have gone completely unnoticed even as the league’s 23-man roster deadline came and went. What happened? Well, it may seem counterintuitive, but both teams have been helped out by injuries and health-related absences. However, they aren’t out of the woods yet and may only be delaying the inevitable.
In New York, the Isles knew that they would receive salary cap and roster flexibility by placing defenseman Johnny Boychuk on Long-Term Injured Reserve, but veteran forward Matt Martin also landed on IR. While just one unexpected injury may not seem like a lot, it has had a massive impact on how the Islanders prepare for the start of the season. While the club was successfully able to pass pricier veterans Richard Panik and Thomas Hickey through waivers and on to AHL Bridgeport, they have not yet had to make the tough decision between any of their other more attractive fringe players. Once Martin returns, someone else has to go. Martin’s fourth line replacement Ross Johnston appears to be safe as the apparent next man up, but is at least in the mix. Serviceable veteran Leo Komarov is not expected to be in the Isles’ Opening Night lineup on Thursday, but has been a valuable depth player for years in New York and is even more attractive to other teams now that he is on an expiring contract. Young Kieffer Bellows, whose new contract was finally registered with the league, would also be very interesting to other teams and represents the Islanders’ best top-six substitute. There is no easy choice as all three are more likely than not to be claimed, which explains why GM Lou Lamoriello has reportedly been exploring the trade market.
Things are a little more dire in Seattle, where the league’s newest team would like to keep their Opening Night roster intact but stand little chance of doing so. Already the team has had to make some risky waiver placements, including Kole Lind and Cale Fleury, but have been lucky thus far. Dennis Cholowski’s time on the wire could yield a different result, but even that loss would pale in comparison to what is coming down the line if the Kraken don’t make a move first. The lone holdover from the team’s recent mini-breakout of positive COVID-19 tests, veteran forward Calle Jarnkrok will be available sooner rather than later. Marcus Johansson, placed on injured reserve today, will likely be the next one back and Colin Blackwell is only expected to miss the first month of the season. Further down the road, the team will also need room for Yanni Gourde, who is expected back closer to December. That’s four valuable veterans forwards who all need spots on the Seattle roster, which already sits at 23 members with only one – Lind – that can safely be sent to the minors. On one hand, these early injuries allow the Kraken to take a look at some players who otherwise would not have made the roster, like waiver claim Alex Barre-Boulet for example. On the other hand, these “extra” players will eventually need to be waived, traded, or force the team to trade others instead. Lind and Barre-Boulet seem like easy cuts, but that is just two of four. Would Ryan Donato, who scored the first goal in franchise history on Tuesday, clear waivers? Would young grinder Nathan Bastian? Veteran center Riley Sheahan? The Kraken have a number of questions left to answer and their early injuries have only kicked the can down the road. The longer they wait, especially if the team is playing well, the less likely their fringe players are to clear waivers and the less likely that potential trade partners may be to make a deal rather than wait them out. GM Ron Francis and company have their work cut out for them.
While the preseason trade market remained quiet and there were no earth-shattering waiver claims, this is at least partially due to some unexpected injuries in New York and Seattle. At some point these situations will need to be resolved and, one way or another, players will wind up changing hands.