James Nichols The Hockey Writers
Islanders’ Center Depth Has Been Their Achilles Heel
The New York Islanders have been an inconsistent hockey club since their 15-0-1 stretch to start the season. The lackluster play of the club is a direct result of the numerous forward line changes that have been made throughout the season in order to find the right fit. Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Brock Nelson have been just about the only steady lineup locks since October. With the acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline, the Islanders hope to finally stabilize what has been a whirlwind down the middle of the lineup after Barzal and Nelson.
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Although the Islanders are not far off from the points percentage of .628% (.621% this season) they had in the 2018-19 season, they have hardly been the same team in comparison. Head coach Barry Trotz had much more flexibility to roll out four lines than he has had so far this year.
After the departure of veteran forward, Valtteri Filppula, Derick Brassard was brought in to fill the void. (from ‘Projecting whether the Islanders’ free agents will stay or go — and for how much — on July 1,’ The Athletic, 05/16/2019) That has hardly been the case, as, throughout the 2019-20 season, Brassard has found his success playing on the wing, and Trotz has mixed and matched as much as he can in an effort to find offense.
Filppula was never going to wow anyone with scoring highlight-reel goals. His contributions were going to come from the intangibles. The veteran dressed in 72 games for the Islanders last season, scoring 17 goals and contributing 31 points in that span. He didn’t shoot often, but when he did he made it count, converting on 21.8% of his shot attempts. That’s the highest shot percentage of his career. In comparison, Leon Draisaitl’s shooting percentage in 2018-19 is 21.6%. Yes, Draisaitl had double the shot attempts, but each player made their shots count.
Most would tell you that much wasn’t even expected of the then 34-year-old forward, but he provided much more than the points. Away from the puck, the Finnish forward was defensively sound. Filppula averaged 1.3 takeaways for every giveaway on the ice, tied with Casey Cizikas, the Islanders’ best penalty killer. In the faceoff dot, the center won draws at a 49.1% rate, trailing only Josh Bailey (in players with over 10 games played), and once again was tied with Cizikas. In the postseason, Filppula upped his win percentage to 60.6% in eight games.
It’s the small things that Filppula brought to the Islanders that kept the team consistent, where Trotz was comfortable to roll out four lines. However, it wasn’t the player alone that made the 2018-19 Islanders so good. After the Barzal line, the line combinations have been a revolving door. Bailey has played on just about every line this year between the center and wing position, Brassard hasn’t proven successful in the center position, and aside from Michael Dal Colle, a combination of rookies and veterans have filtered in and out of the lineup.
Injuries, of course, play a factor in a team’s depth. Cizikas is the identity of the Islanders’ fourth line, but he suffered a lower-body injury and a leg laceration this year, causing him to miss a combined 14 games. With the injuries came the call-ups, and players like Cole Bardreau and Otto Koivula got their chance to play in the NHL. Although the Bardreau debut was a fun one, it didn’t stick for very long as he only skated in 10 games. Koivula’s first stint was bland as well, scoring no points and only being trusted to about eight minutes a night.
Essentially having no third and fourth-line center for about half a season has been a hindrance to the Islanders’ consistency in rolling out four lines like they had in the 2018-19 season. (from ‘The questions that still need answers if the Islanders are done making moves this offseason,’ The Athletic, 07/16/2020 Bailey had stints at the center position, and although he’s productive in the face-off circle, it’s apparent he’s out of position in all other factors of the game. Leo Komarov gets a shot here and there as well when Trotz is desperate to fill the lineup that lacked depth.
With the arrival of Pageau, order should be restored down the middle, and the 2018-19 Islanders’ identity should begin to resurface. Pageau is an upgrade from Filppula and a big one for that matter. He plays in all situations, offense, and defense, and if you saw his debut, you know he’s ready to do whatever it takes to help the Islanders succeed.
In an interview with Andrew Gross of Newsday, Trotz stated, “You see how he changes our team in so many ways. You see how he stepped up. What a great pickup by Lou. The picks are nothing. A lot of picks never play.” (from Jean-Gabriel Pageau scores in debut, but Islanders fall in OT to Rangers, Newsday – 2/26/20).
The arrival of Pageau creates the opportunity for the rest of the team to settle into their regular roles, and further chemistry between linemates should be found. Trotz now has a deep center core to roll with night in and night out, and Pageau has already been credited with being a perfect fit for “Islanders hockey.” With him on Long Island for six more years, the Islanders should no longer struggle at the center position.
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