Anders Lee’s season-ending injury cost the Islanders their team captain and leader, to be sure. What it also cost them was their first-line left-wing whose net presence and ability to cash in on rebounds, deflected shots and loose pucks will be sorely missed. The choice of who fills his slot in the lineup must address issues of skill and style.
No one is more anxious to find out the answer than linemates Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle.
In the six games since Lee went down on March 11 against the Devils, Eberle has one goal and three assists, while Barzal has but two assists. They miss Lee’s ability to move bodies, get in the way, and stuff pucks into the net.
So far, internal options have offered no solutions. Kieffer Bellows started off strong as the first winger substitute, with three goals in two games, but he vanished from Barry Trotz’s lineup card for the last two games after less than stellar performances in the Isles’ losses to Washington and Philadelphia. Leo Komarov found himself inserted into the lineup but has produced little result.
Absent Trotz giving Bellows another shot, what other options are there?
Moving Anthony Beauvillier up to the top line, reuniting him with his former linemates for years ago, disrupts the chemistry he has with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey, and it simply shifts elsewhere the problem of the need to find a winger. Michael Dal Colle’s a hard-working winger, but he, too, is struggling offensively. Oliver Wahlstrom’s hot, but would you want to disturb his ability to work with Jean-Gabriel Pageau? Besides, Wahlstrom, like Barzal and Eberle, is a right-handed shot (and a right-wing by training), so that’s not ideal. Maybe Josh Bailey would have to exchange places with Eberle.
One of the reasons none of these replacements is working out is that the play of none of them resembles that of Lee. Barzal and Eberle would have to find different ways to attack absent Lee’s physical play and net presence.
For example, Beauvillier’s style mirrors rather than compliments that of Barzal and Eberle, although they have played together before.
Would you dress someone else?
Austin Czarnik (another righty shot) failed to keep his place in the lineup, as did Dmytro Timashov; Otto Koivula hasn’t even had that chance. Ross Johnston may be the best option in terms of size, and he has more of a deft touch than he’s given credit for. He may indeed get a chance against more physical opponents, but no one will mistake him for Lee. Anatoli Golyshev may have the skill, but at 5’8” and 187 pounds, adding him on the left side will mean a serious change in style for Barzal and Eberle.
I’ll mention Josh Ho-Sang, just to get your attention.
For the moment, Johnston makes the most sense if Barzal and Eberle are looking for a winger who possesses some of Lee’s talents, especially against a physical opponent. Otherwise, either the first line will play differently or Barzal and Eberle should be broken up, although once more it’s not sure how that improves things throughout the top nine. Bringing Bellows back makes more sense than continuing to play Komarov, although one can see Trotz still using him against Boston on Thursday just to annoy Brad Marchand.
External options present similar problems, especially the oft-named Taylor Hall, who does not resemble Lee at all. But it’s time for Trotz to make a decision, and not to place Barzal and Eberle in the same position he placed Pageau when the third-line center saw new wingers every game. Given Trotz’s conservative nature, I would not be surprised if Johnston doesn’t return to the lineup soon, although I think Bellows or Beauvillier would be better options.
The final answer may not be found on the present roster.
One thing is for sure: the Isles need to get Barzal and Eberle going again as they approach games where the opponent will not be Buffalo or New Jersey. Otherwise, things can (and do) change quickly in the MassMutual East Division.
Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksDSimpson