The Islanders took a more complicated road than necessary, but will get the same 23-man roster in the end.
The team placed Ross Johnston on waivers Monday afternoon, meaning that Simon Holmstrom took the final spot on the varsity heading into Saturday’s opener against the Sabres.
But because Johnston was waived on Monday and not Sunday, Holmstrom was loaned to AHL Bridgeport in a paper transaction so the Islanders could be compliant with the league’s 23-man roster limit by 5 p.m. Monday.
That means in the announcement released by the team, Johnston was listed on the roster while Holmstrom was not.
No matter, the expectation is that Holmstrom will be back up in short order.
The 22-year-old Swede has spent most of training camp stationed on the top line alongside Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal, a position in which he is expected to start the season.
After playing 50 games for the Islanders last year as a product of injuries throughout the lineup, then sitting out during the playoffs, Holmstrom will have gotten in on his own merit.
Asked Monday prior to any moves being announced whether Holmstrom had earned a roster spot, coach Lane Lambert all but confirmed he would be sticking around without officially doing so.
“I think he’s played well,” Lambert said. “And I think that for the most part, he’s a pretty good fit there. So we’ll see what happens.”
The Islanders brought their roster decision down to the final hours, with Johnston taking part in practice on Monday before being waived. But after Johnston played just 16 games last season and did not seem in line for an everyday role during training camp, any other outcome would have been a surprise.
“I think everybody’s had a good showing, for the most part,” Lambert said. “So you want decisions to be tough. I think the guys have made it tough.”
It is unlikely that Johnston, who carries a $1.1 million annual salary, will be picked up off waivers.
Since signing the four-year pact in October 2021, Johnston has played in just 48 games with the Islanders, becoming a frequent healthy scratch.
Getting his cap hit off the books allows the Islanders to be under the $83.5 million cap and put themselves in line to have approximately $2.4 million in space by the trade deadline after space accumulates.
Since Johnston is on a one-way deal, he will be paid his full salary in the AHL.
If the Islanders buy out Johnston’s deal, they would take a $366,667 yearly cap hit from now until 2029.
As for Holmstrom, this amounts to a major chance for him to show an offensive element to his game that eluded him last season. Though the Islanders regularly talked up Holmstrom’s shot and offensive prowess, he had just six goals and three assists last season, usually playing in a bottom-six role where it was instead his defensive instincts that shone through.
Playing with Barzal and Horvat, two offensive-minded stars, Holmstrom should have every chance to produce. On the heels of an injury that kept him out of the final two months of the regular season last year, Barzal has put together an excellent training camp, looking like a renewed offensive threat. Horvat, meanwhile, scored a career-high 38 times last year.
The Islanders have not had a top line with this kind of potential recently. And now Holmstrom should at least start the season as part of it.
The potential has already started to come to fruition in the preseason, as Holmstrom scored a goal off a puck Barzal tipped against the Flyers, then notched an assist on a tape-to-tape pass to Horvat against the Rangers a few nights later.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Holmstrom said following his goal.
And now he has another one.