Isles’ Keith Aucoin taking advantage of NHL opportunity

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UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- In the week leading up to the start of the NHL season, New York Islanders GM Garth Snow kept busy by keeping an eye on the waiver wire. With a need for depth, he plucked four players from waivers -- Joe Finley, Thomas Hickey, Keith Aucoin, and Brian Strait -- and each has played roles in the team's start.

The 34-year old Aucoin is the elder statesman of that foursome. Having spent the past four seasons in the Washington Capitals organization, and the three prior to that with the Carolina Hurricanes, he doesn't fit the description of a "journeyman," but bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL every season could make him feel like one.

Aucoin signed a one-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the summer after playing 27 regular season games and all 14 playoff games with the Capitals. Spending the lockout playing for the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, Aucoin put up 10 goals and 37 points in 34 games before the Islanders acquired him two days in advance of opening night. Those games in the AHL helped give him a bit of a head start; a start that's seen Aucoin average 13:40 of ice time -- a career high -- and tie for the team lead in goals with four.

“It’s big to be able to play all year," Aucoin said after the Islanders' morning skate on Tuesday. "You come into camp and you’re already in shape and you’re in game-ready shape so you don’t have to worry about that, especially the first couple of games."

Snow's waiver-wire moves have paid off for the Islanders. Michael Grabner was a Calder Trophy candidate his first year in New York, while Finley, Hickey and Strait have been a big part of a defense that's dealt with injuries as they wait for the arrival of Lubomir Visnovsky, who's expected to join the team this week. Strait's strong early showings helped him ink a three-year, one-way deal last week.

For Aucoin, he attributes his strong start to confidence gained by playing 27 games during the second half of last season with the Capitals, along with every playoff game before their second round exit. Playing on the Islanders' third line, Aucoin gelled quickly with David Ullstrom and Colin McDonald, who were paired together in Bridgeport during the lockout.

“From Day 1 we had good chemistry," said Aucoin. "We’re a line that we work hard, we keep it simple, we get pucks deep. When we’re in the offensive zone we use our skill. We have Mac, who’s a power forward, and me and Ully are skill guys, so it works out good.”

Having played 673 career games in the AHL but only 110 at the NHL level, transitioning back and forth hasn't been easy for Aucoin. Adjusting to new linemates and systems in a small timeframe could make for tough sledding, but Aucoin has taken advantage of the opportunity with the Islanders, which has helped his case for staying up.

“It’s a big jump from the AHL to NHL level, so a lot of times when you get called up you just get acclimated, and by the time you get back to the speed and the size of guys you get sent back down. It’s tough to get a rhythm. But up here I’ve got a rhythm going so hopefully I continue to do that.”

Aucoin has found his rhythm in all aspects of the game: offensively, defensively, and especially in the faceoff circle, where he's won 64-percent of his draws, something that's helped make him a good fit with the Islanders.

It's one of the things that has stood out to head coach Jack Capuano so far.

"Just his hockey sense and creativity. He opens a little bit more space for his linemates, said Capuano. "I’ve always said that about his vision watching him in the American Hockey League as much as I’ve seen him. He might not be the biggest guy in the world or the quickest guy in the world, but he plays big and competes every shift.”

Aucoin has not played more than 38 NHL games in a season in his career, something he did in 2007-08 with the Hurricanes. He's won the Calder Cup twice with the Hershey Bears and was the AHL MVP in 2010. At age 34, the opportunities to find a home in the NHL diminish year by year, and that's something Aucoin realizes.

“You gotta take advantage of it," Aucoin said. "I felt I’ve always played good when I got called up, but it’s always been a numbers thing for me. The older I got, the less chance you’re gonna have. The league’s a lot younger now. They give the young guys a bigger chance before an older guy."

"But I’m in a great opportunity here and I’m just trying to capitalize on it.”

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy