A day that some thought might never come was captured all over social media on Monday. The New York Islanders actually were on the ice, beginning version two of training camp, as the National Hockey League kicked off its return to play protocol during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Casey Cizikas was there. Adam Pelech was too. And head coach Barry Trotz spoke glowingly of the return of two key pieces to his defensive structure, the latter not having been available to him had the Stanley Cup playoffs began on time and the Islanders earned entry into the tournament.
Cizikas spoke of the excitement of returning to group practices with his teammates, Pelech was said to have made some forwards ‘look very ordinary,' and both mentioned they feel very safe with the protocols put into place to ensure the safety of staff and players amid a troubling and uncertain time.
The Florida Panthers await the Islanders in the qualifying round as New York, along with seven other teams, will have to win five rounds to capture the most prized possession in all sport. Call it tainted, say it belongs with an asterisk next to it, whatever. I, along with the players that will give it everything they have, will call it…a championship. Many say Lord Stanley’s Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports, and some have said this will be the most difficult one to win in the history of the league. I tend to agree, whether you think the decision to return to play is valid or not.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the ‘off-season’ to date has been the saga of Russian goalkeeper Ilya Sorokin, deemed, perhaps prematurely, to be the savior to all the crease woes and bad karma of the past, ever since Billy Smith decided to hang up his skates. Well, he’s on his way, folks. Team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello convinced him to finally arrive in the United States by offering an olive branch in the form of a one-year entry level contract without ever playing a game, then giving Sorokin $2 million on a one-year extension.
Sorokin will be allowed to join the Islanders for phases three and four, including being present with the team in Toronto, the bubble city for the organization, Lamoriello announced. Sorokin also has said, through his agent Dan Milstein, that he wouldn’t be opposed to playing in Bridgeport with the Sound Tigers, who are expected to begin their 2020-21 AHL season while the NHL is still wrapping up 2019-20.
How Sorokin fits into a rotation with Semyon Varlamov remains to be seen, but it would hurt the Islanders to throw him 60 starts right away and have $5 million eating away at their salary cap on the bench. The safe bet is to imagine Sorokin getting 30-35 starts in 2021, and we can assume this likely means the end of Thomas Greiss’ career in blue and orange, as his services will almost certainly not be needed.
Until then, however, Greiss is in camp and battling with Varlamov to decide who will man the net against Florida when their series begins on August 1. Neither goaltender played well this year, both posting average save percentages and 54 percent quality start percentages. That will have to change, as the series with the Panthers is expected to be close, meaning a bad goal or two can mean the difference from advancing and having a shot to draft hotshot Alexis Lafrenière.
Two notes about those playoffs and the return to play:
-The league announced the Islanders will play the New York Rangers in an exhibition game in Toronto on July 29 at 8 p.m. ET.
-Start times were also announced for the first three games of the best-of-five against Florida. Game one will be at 4 p.m. ET on August 1, followed by game two on August 4 at noon and game three on August 5 at noon. All games will be televised on MSG Network, with Brendan Burke and Butch Goring announcing from a studio in Manhattan.