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Taub: Questions the Isles Need to Answer in the Second Half

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The New York Islanders are back on the ice today, and that means the stretch run to the end of the season is officially underway. It also means more questions that must be answered.

Everybody knows where the Isles stand as they gear themselves up for this crucial portion of the season — 29 wins, 63 points, and currently holding on to the number-three slot in the highly-contested Metropolitan Division. But it doesn’t change the fact that there are still things that need to take shape for them to make an even deeper playoff run then they did last spring.

G.M. Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz have done a wonderful job since they arrived a year and a half ago. They’ve brought in structure, accountability and are considered a win-now team, as many of the fans and those around the league have concurred.

Even though they are still “building for the future”, the Isles have the pieces in place to be successful. There still room for improvement though. And with just a little more help, who knows what this organization is capable of?

The first of the big questions: Are we going to see the first half of this season Jordan Eberle or the Eberle who was clutch in the second half of last season and in the postseason?

It’s been a tough go this year for Eberle, who signed a new five-year, $27.5 million contract this past summer. He was sidelined after just the fifth game of the season, causing him to miss ten games and put him behind the eight-ball as the year has progressed. Eberle has only scored seven times in 39 games, also an underwhelming total for a player who was expected to be one of the team’s more potent scoring threats this season.

Eberle will be key to the Islanders’ offense comes alive for the rest of the year.

“If you look at Ebs’ career, he has been a guy who will get hot and get his goals and there will be times when he gets a little cold,” Trotz told Joe Pantorno of amNY.com a few weeks back. “That’s sort of been his DNA for a little bit. I’m hoping he gets hot for us.”

Trotz is right when thinking Eberle could be the one who leads the way too. Eberle proved he can be clutch as he was a force at the end of last season and in the playoffs. And something to keep in mind, the 29-year-old’s seemed to be regaining confidence before the break; Eberle has four goals and seven points in his last eight games. That’s the shoot-first mentality coming to the surface, which he needs to be more consistent. It also exactly the Eberle the Isles are going to need as the months turn to March and April.

Having an Eberle, who is confident in his game, makes him one of the more dangerous forwards the Isles possess.

Question number two translates to the third line and who is going to step up?

For a long chunk of this season, the Isles’ third line has been a makeshift cast of characters. Guys like Cole Bardreau, Tom Kuhnhackl, Oliver Wahlstrom and Michael Dal Colle have been a part of the “next man up” carousel with mainstays, Derick Brassard and Leo Komarov.

There’s been a minimal amount of success but not enough to where this line can be depended on to contribute to the offense on a nightly basis.

Brassard has just eight goals but has gone a long time without finding the back of the net. Komarov, Kuhnhackl and Dal Colle have combined for only six goals the entire year. Those numbers are nowhere close to the output the guys who composed that third unit provided last year. It’s also why — with how stagnant the offense can get at times — this line that usually bears the brunt of the criticism. Some of it warranted and some not.

If the Isles are going to earn themselves a second straight postseason appearance, one of these names is going to have to lead the way.

Brassard has been in this position before in his career with the Rangers, Senators, and as a Cup-winner with the Penguins. He’s been invisible for a while now and would be the perfect candidate to live up to his “Big Game Brass” mantra. Depending on Kuhnhackl or Dal Colle to grab the reins comes with uncertainty. Kuhnhackl has experienced the grind it takes to win, but he’s not a constant factor in the lineup. As for Dal Colle, there’s been too much stop and start in his game this year. The entire offense would receive an unexpected lift if he somehow showed that offensive prowess that made him a top-5 pick years back.

Then there’s Komarov, who has low totals offensively and plays with a more defensive-first mindset. Komarov becoming a consistent point producer would not only turn a lot of heads but also give the forward group some extra edge to go along with the skill they lack.

On to question three which is all about Noah Dobson: How good is he?

It was unfortunate that the rookie’s opportunity to be a regular came due to the circumstance of Adam Pelech going down with a season-ending injury. But as the old saying goes, “sometimes good things come out of bad situations”. And hopefully, that’s exactly the case with Dobson.

Dobson has, and is continuing, to get his chance to show why the Islanders brass was so high on him when they drafted him 12th overall in the 2018 draft. The 20-year-old has already appeared in 22 games — a bulk of them coming after Pelech’s injury — and displayed more confidence. Yes he still on a learning curve, but the upside is clearly there that will make him a big piece of the Islanders’ future.

“If you look at where I was in October or November to the way I feel now out there, I definitely feel I’ve grown a bit,” Dobson recently told Newsday. “But there’s still more growing to do.”

That growth will have to take place the rest of the year as the games for the Isles become more important in the standings. Also being paired with veteran, Johnny Boychuk, will help the youngster in terms of learning what it means to be a pro.

When he was drafted, Dobson was projected as a future number-one d-man. It’s what he evolved into in juniors. And he made the most of it, winning back-to-back Memorial Cup titles. So he knows when the stage gets bigger, the better he becomes.

The Islanders need to see that Noah Dobson the rest of the way.

And the final question, the million-dollar question it seems: Will Lou make a move?

If you’ve been on social media during Lamoriello’s time as the head of the Islanders, you will find the gross stat of how long it has been since he swung a deal. Last check, today marked 576 days since he made a trade — the Matt Martin trade with Toronto.

Incredible as that seems, time is of the essence for Lamoriello to finally pull the trigger.

The NHL Trade Deadline is a mere few weeks away and his club is teetering closer to a wild card spot than they would like. The Islanders are desperate for an injection of life offensively behind Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier. Add in that they could use another d-man to bolster the depth on the blueline with Pelech not returning anytime soon.

Lamoriello and Co. have had a long time over the last few months, and specifically this most recent extended break, to gather all the information they need to add to this roster. The Islanders under Lamoriello’s reign have reached a crossroads, almost parallel to the 1979-80 team. That team’s g.m., Bill Torrey, went for it at the deadline and acquired the missing link, Butch Goring. They went on to win four straight Stanley Cups because of it.

Therefore, the time is now on Lou to decide what he wants his team to be. Do they become consistent contenders for years to come? Or stay being a good team who couldn’t bring in that final piece to the puzzle?

We’ll know the answer soon. But until then, tensions will continue to be high. As with all the other questions above needing to be answered.

Follow me on Twitter at @RTaub_

 

 

 

 

 

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