Ryan Pulock hit the ice with his New York Islanders teammates for morning skate on Thursday — usually, a mundane practice suddenly providing hope that the defenseman will finally be making his way back from a lower-body injury that has kept him out since Nov. 15.
“Just to see him skating with us today after all the hard work that he’s put in day in and day out to come back — it’s big,” Islanders forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau said. “Everyone was happy to see him, everyone had a smile on their face.”
While winger Kyle Palmieri was slated to return to the Islanders’ ranks for their Thursday-night tilt against the Los Angeles Kings, Pulock isn’t there yet.
In fact, his return isn’t even the coaching staff’s call, as of now.
“It’s really the player’s decision,” head coach Barry Trotz admitted. “He’ll know how comfortable he feels, where his conditioning is. I’ll have an observation, but really it’s going to end up being a player’s decision; him saying ‘I feel like I’m ready to go.'”
“Then, it’s in my court and I’m not there yet.”
The top-pairing blue liner’s absence has been sizable for an Islanders team predicated on defense. His stint on injured reserve paired with the loss of Nick Leddy this offseason has seen a regression for a team that had one of the top defenses in the league over the previous three seasons. Regardless, they still rank fifth-best in the NHL with an average of 2.60 goals-against per game.
Pulock’s 10-plus-week hiatus has forced the Islanders to shuffle its blue line, often turning to the likes of Sebastian Aho and Robin Salo to fill the void while forcing 44-year-old Zdeno Chara to play first-pairing minutes top-four minutes when he was brought on to perform as a third-pairing defenseman.
Of Islanders defensemen who have played in at least 20 games, Chara ranks fourth on the team with an average of 18:45 of ice time per game.
Pulock’s impending return would not only take some of the pressure off the veteran blueliner, but it would finally return the Islanders’ defensive core to full strength for the first time in more than two months.