It’s not clear exactly when the Islanders will get Ryan Pulock back. But it is clear that he’s growing closer to a return — and that the Islanders very much need him as soon as possible.
When Pulock suffered a lower-body injury in mid-November, the initial diagnosis was he could return after four to six weeks. It has been nearly 10 weeks since then, but Pulock was at least able to skate ahead of the Islanders’ game Thursday against the Kings.
That’s progress, even if much slower than expected.
“That’s really a question for the player,” head coach Barry Trotz said when asked about Pulock’s status. “The one thing we do, it’s really the player’s decision and he’ll know. He’ll know how comfortable he feels, where his conditioning is. I will have an observation, but really it’s gonna end up being a player’s decision, saying, ‘I feel like I’m ready to go,’ and then it’s in my court. I’m not there yet.”
The positive for the Islanders during Pulock’s absence is that Robin Salo has gotten valuable NHL experience. Salo has played well enough to create some questions about whether he deserves to stay in the lineup upon Pulock’s return. But that has been outweighed by the loss of Pulock, whose absence has made obvious how badly the Islanders need another defenseman who can get the puck up the ice and help create offense.
Noah Dobson has taken strides in that area, and has done a good job running the first power-play unit, but the Islanders badly need more than one defenseman who can drive play in the offensive zone. If Pulock were healthy, it would be him.
Pulock has played on the power play before, and he made up the more offense-driven half of a pairing with Adam Pelech that was one of the NHL’s best last season.
The two were split up prior to Pulock’s injury, but Trotz will face the question of whether to put them back together — and how Salo’s status will impact such a decision — upon his return.
It figures that Trotz would want to get Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene, who are 44 and 39 years old, respectively, some rest during a stretch run in which the team doesn’t have much time off. But the default for Trotz is that young players such as Salo are on a short leash, and need to earn their playing time if a spot is up for grabs.
For example, upon Kyle Palmieri’s return on Thursday, Kieffer Bellows was made a healthy scratch, though Palmieri had struggled prior to getting hurt. Trotz said afterwards that he wanted Bellows to play on the left side, and it would benefit Palmieri to play before the All-Star break.
In Pulock’s case, it’s unclear whether he’ll get that chance. But it would certainly be a boon to the Islanders if they could make it happen.
For now, though, they’re just happy to see him back on the ice.
“He’s a big part of this team,” Jean-Gabriel Pageau said Thursday. “He’s a great guy to be around. Just to see him skate with us today after all the hard work that he’s put in day in, day out to come back, it’s big. Everyone, I think, was happy to see him. Everybody had a smile on their face.”