Trigger warning: I’m breaking up the second line.
They say that no player should lose his job to injury, yet that is virtually what has happened to Andrew Ladd this season. The 32-year-old left winger was playing well on the Islanders second line before it was cool. Skating alongside Mat Barzal and Jordan Eberle for a good chunk of the first half of the season, Ladd tallied nine goals and nine assists as the left-handed shot on the second line. His net-front presence opened up more space for his speedy counterparts, as he tied up defenders and blocked goaltenders’ sight lines. This is a good example of that:
Let me go on the record and say I am a big fan of what Andrew Ladd brings to this team. His style of play seems to adapt to whatever situation he’s put in. In my opinion, Ladd has acted like the ultimate team guy and has taken his diminished role this season (only the second in a seven-year deal) without issue. On the third line, he has played with an edge and shown emotion on the ice during the team’s recent struggles. With John Tavares doing his best to play the cool, calm and collected leader, Ladd does a good job of being the fiery veteran not afraid to run his mouth or take liberties with someone behind the play. This takes pressure off the younger players around him who are still struggling to find consistency in their game.
When Ladd went down with an upper-body injury after the January 5 game against Pittsburgh and missed the next nine contests, Anthony Beauvillier slotted into his spot and found chemistry with Barzal and Eberle almost immediately. In fairness, with the way those two play together, Andy Hilbert or Jeff Tambellini could probably score 20 on that line.
Going into Thursday’s game against Toronto, Ladd and Beauvillier both tallied three points in the ten games since Ladd’s return. The Islanders were 4-5-1 are over that stretch, suffering some of their worst losses off the season, including a blowout in Toronto and late, back-breaking goals against Nashville, Buffalo and Calgary (and almost Detroit, too). Lack of puck possession and missed assignments by back-checking forwards have contributed to inconsistent play. (Note: Beauvillier tallied two assists last night in another loss to the Leafs.)
That being said, it is ridiculous to argue that a player’s worth strictly lies in point production. Barzal continues to shine partly thanks to Beauvillier’s speed and skill on chip-and-chase plays, as well as his ability to win puck battles along the boards. On the third line, Brock Nelson has come alive, logging eight points (seven of which came at even strength) over those same 10 games, while he and Ladd have skated alongside the likes on Tanner Fritz and Jason Chimera.
With five-on-five point production dipping across the forward corps (especially on the first line) and the team’s recent struggles to defend (and win), I would consider flipping Ladd and Beauvillier back to where they were. Now, you can argue something along the lines of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or mention Beauvillier’s struggle to even stay in the lineup before being put on the second line. Those are both valid points. However, something is absolutely “broke” here.
Obviously, there are a lot of hypotheticals in this situation, and it is a lot to assume that Ladd would automatically return to his November form, with Beauvillier taking the demotion on the chin and continuing his inspired play.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say it happens. What could a third line featuring two lefties with good releases and sufficient skating abilities use? Maybe a creative, right-handed playmaker who has shown flashes of brilliance at the NHL level as well as chemistry with one of those players as recent as this season. If only the organization had one of those buried in the AHL right now. Obviously, a Josh Ho-Sang call-up is a huge “if,” but if the Isles do stay quiet at the deadline, it may become much more likely as many others have suggested.
This blog is not meant to take away from what Beauvillier has done in recent weeks at all. If anything, it is suggesting that he has been able to elevate his game and be one of the team’s better forwards on most nights. It is not absurd to believe he can continue this with different players around him.
In short, putting Ladd back into a familiar situation to maximize his production while adding Beauvillier’s skillset to a streaky third line could provide serious results for the team.