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Robin Salo could fill Islanders weakness after NHL introduction

All those axioms about the speed of the NHL game, the physicality and the impact of the smaller North American rink on guys who come over from Europe — Robin Salo felt it. 

Last season was Salo’s first on the continent, following a career spent in Finland’s junior and professional ranks, with a cameo in the Swedish Hockey League. He crossed the Atlantic and got tossed into the fire, his NHL debut coming as a consequence of the Islanders’ poorly timed COVID-19 outbreak last November. 

It’s unlikely that changed much of the big picture. Salo was always on pace to play some NHL games last season and to challenge for a permanent roster spot this season. But that hypothetical can’t be answered. Instead of what might have been, Salo finished last season with 21 NHL contests under his belt, just four below exhausting his Calder Trophy eligibility. 

His season was a mixed bag. Salo’s offensive skill flashed at times, as he scored once, assisted on four goals and occasionally got power-play time. The defensive lapses came, too, and at one point the Islanders pointedly avoided calling him up when they needed help on their blue line, the kind of move that seemed intended to send a message. 

Robin Salo participates in drills at Islanders rookie camp.
Robin Salo participates in drills at Islanders rookie camp.
Robert Sabo / for the NY POST

Now he’s at rookie camp, trying to make an impression before Islanders training camp opens to all on Wednesday. 

“It’s a huge opportunity for a lot of guys,” Salo told The Post. “Nothing comes free here so of course we’re all battling for a spot and everybody’s doing their best. Everybody here is a good player. Just comes down to who wants more of it.” 

Salo, who turns 24 in October, is one of few players in the Islanders’ system who could make an NHL impact sooner rather than later. Not only does he already have some experience, he also plays a position — left-side defense — that has a wide-open spot on a depth chart that otherwise features a lot written in pen. 

His offensive-minded game, in theory, would help fill a weakness of last year’s Islanders. In practice, though, Salo needs to clean up the defensive side of his game and prove he can hang in the NHL from a physical standpoint. 

“I would say just strength for me, and explosiveness,” Salo said, regarding his focus over the summer. “Just because [it’s] a little bit more of a physical game here than in Europe. I think that kind of stuff, just being a little bit harder, better defensively.” 

While with the Islanders last season, Salo tried to take from Adam Pelech, the team’s lone All-Star and a stalwart defender. He watched Pelech’s positioning, the detail in his game, and tried to bring it to his own. 

“You don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Salo said. “Just like being smart in that kind of way, just being effective and giving no space for the forward.” 

Robin Salo
Robin Salo played in 21 games last season for the Islanders.
Robert Sabo

Since coming over, Salo has developed a friendship with Grant Hutton, another defendman who spent most of last season at AHL Bridgeport and has a chance to make the roster this season. The two play different styles, Hutton employing more of a defense-first mentality, and like to pick each others’ brains. 

“It’s been useful bouncing things off each other,” Hutton said. “We like to work with each other after practice on different skill sets. He’s better than me at some areas and vice versa.” 

Of a group in the running for playing time that also includes Dennis Cholowski and Sebastian Aho, Salo is the youngest and figures to have the highest ceiling. In that sense, it would give the organization the most long-term benefit to see him as an NHL mainstay as soon as possible. 

But first, he has to prove that’s what’s best for the Islanders in the short term.

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